Detail of "Emblem 43" from Philip Ayres' Emblems of Love in Four Languages: Dedicated to the Ladys, 1747
Sometimes things just go your way - today I opened up Winamp, loaded up all my mp3s, clicked "Randomize List" (as I always do for Probabilistic Jukebox), and the song that popped up was just what I was hoping for. I've been thinking about the Magnetic Fields this week for the first time in a while - they kind of dropped off the radar in 2009 until their sudden recent announcement that they have a new album coming out in January, to be followed by a US tour. The album, Realism, is the final chapter in Stephin Merritt's "no synths" trilogy, which began with i and Distortion. As every Magnetic Fields album tries to limit itself to a single approach to traditional pop music, it's not surprising that Realism's shtick is that it's an all-acoustic album exploring folk-pop. There's a nice little essay about the album on the Nonesuch website.
I'll admit that I'm particularly excited about 2009 tour - as I mentioned in my review of the recent Pixies concert, I think it would be nice to see all of my favorite contemporary bands at least once. Because Stephin Merritt hates live performance, and because his hearing sensitivity has made it increasingly difficult for him to endure adoring applause, Magnetic Fields shows have become few and far between, but I've already got tickets to see them in February!
"Summer Lies" was my first love - when I bought The Wayward Bus in 1994 on the strength of a CMJ review I'd read, I was drawn to the song immediately. The synth arrangement, built around harpsichord, cello, and tuba voices, was like an expensive mannequin - an almost-lifelike mimicry, but its falsity was essential to its beauty. Susan Anway's unaffected, blank (almost Nico-like) vocal is her best performance as the Magnetic Fields' original vocalist, and the lyric is perfect for this delivery, exposing Merritt's raw talent for prose. As soon as I heard the line, "I pine and wane, pale and wan, never knowing when it's dawn - curtains drawn," I knew Merritt was on to something. This song soundtracked my freshman year of college, but I somehow still find it perfectly listenable - not many songs cold survive a close association with that time in a person's life.
"Summer Lies" by the Magnetic Fields