About fifteen years ago, looking for something to play on my college radio station, I cued up a reel-to-reel tape I’d found in a pile by the wall–and fell in love. The tape was by a local Boston band, Buffalo Rome, and the song was called “You Love to Fail.” “Maybe tomorrow I’ll see love in your eyes; then mine will die,” sang a woman with a voice like distilled water, almost without inflection. “You love to fail. That’s all you love.” The instrumentation was shimmering, curiously static electronics; the melody was as heartbreaking as the words. I wondered if I’d ever again hear anything like it.
A year or so later, I discovered that Buffalo Rome wasn’t just an anonymous one-off project. They’d changed their singer and their name; their mastermind, a strange little man named Stephin Merritt, was in the process of recording a CD as the Magnetic Fields, named after a book by André Breton and Philippe Soupault. That album, Distant Plastic Trees, came out only in England at first. A friend taped it for me, and I almost wore the tape out playing it for everyone I knew, and then copying it for most of them. Another friend released one of its songs as a single on his tiny Boston label, Harriet Records; “100,000 Fireflies” became a small classic of the American independent pop underground. Not a hit, exactly–the Magnetic Fields have never had a hit, or anything close to one. What they do have is a hard core of devotees.
Through the 1990s, the Magnetic Fields continued to be something of a secret, spread by word of mouth. Merritt took over singing, in his deadpan baritone; the band’s lineup stabilized to include guitarist John Woo, drummer/keyboardist/singer Claudia Gonson and cellist Sam Davol. Side projects emerged: The 6ths (named after the hardest word for lispers to pronounce–their first album was Wasps’ Nests), in which Merritt’s songs were sung by guest vocalists; Future Bible Heroes, a collaboration with Gonson and multi-instrumentalist Chris Ewen; a “goth-bubblegum” joke band, the Gothic Archies… And Merritt kept producing Magnetic Fields albums, refining his songwriting and developing increasingly eccentric sounds in the studio.
In late 1999, he pulled off a magnificent “stunt,” as he called it. 69 Love Songs was exactly what it claimed to be–a three-CD set, with five vocalists singing Merritt-written love songs in every twentieth-century pop genre he could pastiche, parody or execute with a straight face. It got people’s attention. I was there the first time Merritt played a dozen Love Songs in public, accompanied only by a ukulele, at a tiny East Village basement club with a dripping ceiling, and the first time the Magnetic Fields played all sixty-nine over two nights, at the Knitting Factory, a smallish TriBeCa club with a capacity of roughly 400 standing people. (Cheers erupted after the first chorus of “Papa Was a Rodeo”–which most of the crowd hadn’t even heard before.) And I was there the last time they played the whole thing, to a sold-out Lincoln Center audience, as part of the “American Songbook” series.
Since 69LS, Merritt has released a second 6ths album, Hyacinths & Thistles; a couple of Future Bible Heroes discs; music for two stage adaptations of Chinese operas; a song for the audio editions of Lemony Snicket’s books for children (Snicket’s alter ego, Daniel Handler, sometimes plays accordion with the Magnetic Fields); and a handful of minor new tunes for two soundtracks, Eban and Charley and Pieces of April. But it’s been almost five years since the Magnetic Fields released a proper album, and they’ve now moved from the midsized independent label Merge (home of scrappy rock artists including Superchunk and Neutral Milk Hotel) to the major label Nonesuch (home of distinctly non-scrappy, non-rock artists like Randy Newman and the Kronos Quartet).