I am often astounded to find Magnetic Fields CDs in the collections of friends and the homes of diverse acquaintances. With their songs of love's ironies and misdirected romances and confronting the chances to repeat one's crimes, most can identify with the simple recordings and universal themes. From the first release of 1991's 100,000 Fireflies, The Magnetic Fields were set for "indie-instant-classic" status. They have stealthily foiled all radars that track this band's rise and cross-market popularity. Since the release of 69 Love Songs, 3 CDs of 23 songs each, they have ascended but have stayed just shy of full commercial exploitation.
Frontman/Producer/instrumentalist Stephin Merritt has been compared to Cole Porter and other song craftsmen of past generations. A hugely prolific songwriter, Merritt has three other groups he performs with, The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and The Gothic Archies. Merritt is collaborating on an operatic work, his third with theater director Chen-Shi-Zheng, My Life as a Fairy Tale, based on the life of Hans Christian Andersen. Merritt's works have far surpassed the indie roots that sprouted from Cambridge, MA. Now working and producing out of New York where he writes, programs, produces, records and plays just about every instrument and giving the recordings a feeling of intimacy, of being privy to thoughts that are usually kept quietly to one's self.
House of Tomorrow is the fourth Magnetic Fields release. In 1999 this EP was was reissued on CD by Merge who now owns and distributes the entire Magnetic Fields collection. Five songs that total 12 minutes are indicative of their earlier sound that is marked by a more electric, muddled, and dense production that has evolved to a more sparse and simple sound. Merritt now opts for a ukulele over an electric guitar, cellos and acoustic instruments over synthesized. Perhaps the newer sound is because of Merritt's hearing condition known as, Hyperaccusis? Hyperaccusis causes extreme sensitivity to loud noises. For each person afflicted with this condition the sensitivity comes at varying decibel levels. Merritt now wears earplugs when performing and recording. Regardless of the reasons, the new work highlights Merritt's vocals and lyrics over the earlier saturated production. His ironic, brooding, exhausted and contemplative lyrics and vocals are still the standard earmark of The Magnetic Fields.
Young and Insane is the first track and it is classic early Fields recording. Majestic guitars with electronic drum beat and Merritt's voice sounding more weaved into the composition than standing right out in front. A lilting track that is great new pop and contains the reoccurring themes of insane romance of the late 20th century. Technical (You Are So) continues with the electric drum and bright huge sounding guitars and Merritt's baritone delivery. Technical has another classic feature of Merritt's lyrics, homosexuality and androgyny. What makes Merritt such an important chronicler of modern love is his lyrical sexual ambiguity. He could be singing about two boys, two girls or traditional love roles. The chorus repeating, with lines like, "You're so technical, are you a boy or a girl?" and about programming, hacking, think tanks and deities it makes me think this is about chat room love or is this a romantic ode to his computer? Very modern.
The biggest and most well known track on the CD is Love Goes Home To Paris In The Spring. This song is true Magnetic Fields pop. With electronic mandolin, drum machine and Merritt. This could be an out take from The Charm of The Highway Strip. Upbeat and bright the drums march with a skipping step. Such a bright song with such acidic lyrics. You think it is a celebration of love but in Merritt's usual ironic and bitter tone it is a song about counting all the things that he has given up for love; the drugs, the friends, the habits, and all the fruitless efforts of wrong love. Not love gone wrong but just loving the wrong person. It is upbeat music about putting up with enough and moving on. Love has taken off for Paris because it certainly is not here anymore.
The House of Tomorrow is short and sweet. The tracks could be leftovers and rougher than other recent recordings but are still representations of The Magnetic Fields themes and sound. Bordering on redundant at 12 minutes in length it does not exhaust the listener. The EP reminds me of an artist's sketchbooks rough and unfinished representations of concepts that will one day be brought to a higher state of completeness. Some pieces are perfect just as they are and anymore "finishing" may kill the spontaneity of that concept and its original emotions and energy. Like all great artists, they work and rework themes and symbols that are constant through their body of work. Flushing out the essence of who they are and what they are trying to say with ease, simplicity and directness. These are early rough workings of reoccurring concepts leading to what today is a stream of pure pop consciousness that touches listeners with their perfection of lyricism and composition.