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.