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10 Best Magnetic Fields Songs

Merge Records

The Magnetic Fields began as a studio project for singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt some 20 years ago. From his early bedroom-recording days to his present status as a major-label-backed critical darling, Merritt has remained one of pop’s most exciting songwriters.

Lead by Merritt’s wicked lyrical style and trademark baritone vocals, the Magnetic Fields have been wooing indie fans since the early ’90s, when they signed with Merge Records, but it wasn’t until the 1999 three-volume concept album ’69 Love Songs’ that they also garnered gushing reviews from heavy hitters like the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

Merritt and company are still are force to be reckoned with, as last year’s excellent ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea’ album illustrated, and today, Diffuser.fm takes a gander at the 10 Best Magnetic Fields Songs.


Merge Records
Merge Records

10

‘Take Ecstasy With Me’

From: ‘Holiday’ (1994)

 

 

Kicking off our list of the Best Magnetic Fields Songs is the closing track on ‘Holiday,’ the group’s third studio album. ‘Take Ecstasy With Me’ is a love story in which the two characters encounter homophobic violence. Told in Merritt’s always effective direct lyrical style, the song finds the protagonist telling his lover “we got beat up just for holding hands” over a breezy bed of acoustic guitars, minimal percussion and, during the chorus, a melancholic keyboard refrain.

 

Merge Records
Merge Records

9

‘Summer Lies’

From: ‘The Wayward Bus’ (1992)

 

 

Sung by Susan Anway, ‘Summer Lies’ sounds like some sort of lost psych-folk gem from the early ‘70s that the folks at Light in the Attic would reissue. Anway channels Nico’s iciness and Judy Collins’ delicate timbre in her vocal delivery, and it turns out to be the perfect vessel for Merritt’s tale of a scorned lover. It ends with the arresting line “curtains drawn, hiding in my room / wasting away, cutting myself.”

 

Merge Records
Merge Records

8

‘Papa Was a Rodeo’

From: ’69 Love Songs’ (1999)

 

 

In which Merritt tells a would-be one-night stand, “I see that kiss-me pucker forming, but maybe you should plug it with a beer.” ‘Papa Was a Rodeo’ seems to be about someone raised by parents who were rarely around and how it’s damaged his capacity to truly connect with others romantically. Few songwriters can pull off a subject like this as compellingly as Merritt does.

 

Nonesuch Records
Nonesuch Records

7

‘I Wish I Had an Evil Twin’

From: ‘I’ (2004)

 

 

Don’t we all?

 

Nonesuch Records
Nonesuch Records

6

‘You Must Be Out of Your Mind’

From: ‘Realism’ (2010)

 

 

An elegant folk track brimming with a sparkling string arrangement and an exquisite chorus, ‘You Must Be Out of Your Mind,’ No. 6 on our list of the Best Magnetic Fields Songs, opens the underrated 2010 album ‘Realism.’ Leave it to Merritt to have a lyric as biting as “And I no longer drink enough to think you’re witty” and have it sit in such a pretty setting.

 

Merge Records
Merge Records

5

‘Andrew in Drag’

From: ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea’ (2012)

 

 

Opening with the attention-grabbing lines “a pity she does not exist, a shame he’s not a fag / the only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag,” ‘Andrew in Drag’ features some of the finest lyrical work you’ll find in the entire Merritt songbook.

 

Merge Records
Merge Records

4

‘Born on a Train’

From: ‘The Charm of the Highway Strip’ (1994)

 

 

As ‘Born on a Train’ progresses, Merritt adds a new layer of instrumentation – each more melodic than the last one – resulting in an undeniable piece of perfect pop. It’s no surprise Arcade Fire have been known to cover the song in concert.

 

Merge Records
Merge Records

3

‘Very Funny’

From: ’69 Love Songs’ (1999)

 

 

A torch song that clocks in at just one minute and 27 seconds, ‘Very Funny’ is brutal. “So you go there for a laugh / you just go to take photographs / to believe that, I’d be daft / but yes, I think you go for a laugh and you say, ‘I love you honey,’ very funny.” What more can we say?

 

Merge Records
Merge Records

2

‘100,000 Fireflies’

From: ‘Distant Plastic Trees’ (1991)

 

 

Most people first heard ‘100,000 Fireflies’ (and Magnetic Fields for that matter) when Superchunk covered the song on their 1992 ‘The Question Is How Fast’ 7-inch. Magnetic Fields’ version of the track – released the year before on their ‘Distant Plastic Trees’ album – is an exquisitely crafted slice of baroque pop. Susan Anway’s angelic vocal is the cherry on top.

 

Merge Records
Merge Records

1

‘The Book of Love’

From: ’69 Love Songs’ (1999)

 

 

Topping our list of the 10 Best Magnetic Fields Songs is the sparse yet majestic ‘The Book of Love.’ Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Merritt tells the object of his desire, “The book of love is long and boring,” but a few lines later admits, “But I, I love it when you read to me.” Peter Gabriel covered ‘The Book of Love’ for the 2004 film ‘Shall We Dance?’ but that version’s lush arrangement comes off schmaltzy in the end and can’t hold a candle to the original recording. It wouldn’t be surprising if, years from now, ‘The Book of Love’ enjoys the same kind of afterlife Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ has.

 

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