Magnetic Fields
Magnetic Fields
Label: Nonesuch
Genre: Rock
Online: Artist Website


The Magnetic Fields are a bona fide band, but in most essential respects they are the project of studio wunderkind Stephin Merritt. Merritt writes, produces, and (generally) sings all of their material, as well as plays many of the instruments, concocting a sort of indie pop synth rock. While the Magnetic Fields may draw upon the electronic textures of vintage acts like ABBA, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music with Eno, Joy Division, and Gary Numan, Merritt's vision is far more pointed toward the alternative rock underground. His songs are also far warmer and more pure pop-oriented than the above reference points might lead you to believe, sounding at times like late-20th century equivalents to Phil Spector or Brian Wilson.

Merritt had been recording on his own four-track from a very young age, but didn't issue the first Magnetic Fields album until 1990, when he was well into his twenties. The first pair of discs featured the choirgirl vocals of Susan Amway, and are probably the most accessible offerings for general listeners wary of electro-rock. On subsequent releases, Merritt handled the vocals himself in a deep croon not far removed from his European influences. The synth pop quotient also became heavier, although Merritt has always taken care to mix in quite a few natural instruments with the electronic ones, often with the help of Claudia Gonson (percussion) and Sam Davol (cello, flute). The emphasis has always remained on the pop hooks and eccentric, romantically reflective lyrics rather than the bedrock synthetic rhythms and textures.

In addition to his work with Magnetic Fields, Merritt has involved himself in several side projects, the most notable being the 6ths' Wasps' Nests album (1995). Merritt sang only one track himself on this disc, for which he acted as composer/producer/multi-instrumentalist, employing well-known alternative rock singers like Barbara Manning, Dean Wareham (Luna), Lou Barlow, Georgia Hubley (Yo La Tengo), Chris Knox, and Robert Scott (the Bats) to handle the lead vocals. After releasing 1997's New Despair as the Gothic Archies, Merritt finally returned to the Magnetic Fields aegis for 1999's 69 Love Songs, released as both a trio of separate discs as well as a limited edition three-CD box set. Merritt spent the next few years releasing more side projects, including records from the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, as well as numerous soundtracks. It wasn't until May 2004 that Merritt and his Magnetic Fields finally got around to making i, a collection of songs that begin with the aforementioned vowel. Distortion followed in early 2008. [AMG Richie Unterberger]