Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Magnetic Fields

  • Distant Plastic Trees [Red Flame, 1991] Neither
  • The Wayward Bus [PoPuP, 1992] B+
  • Holiday [Feels Good All Over, 1994] ***
  • The Charm of the Highway Strip [Merge, 1994] B+
  • Get Lost [Merge, 1995] A-
  • 69 Love Songs [Merge, 1999] A+
  • i [Nonesuch, 2004] B+
  • Distortion [Nonesuch, 2008] A
  • Realism [Nonesuch, 2010] ***
  • Love at the Bottom of the Sea [Merge, 2012] A-
  • 50 Song Memoir [Nonesuch, 2017] A-
  • Quickies [Nonesuch, 2020] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Distant Plastic Trees [Red Flame, 1991] Neither

The Wayward Bus [PoPuP, 1992]
In this Amerindie version of the Eurythmics, Stephin Merritt pulls Susan Anway's strings: where Annie would belt these metronomic tunes all the way to Vegas, Anway trills them in a sweet monotone and is grateful she can manage that. She's proud to play the puppet, which is a good thing because synthere thongwriter Merritt would drop her if she wasn't. First time out the literary brilliance of his doggerel lapped over into an obscurity his crude sonic eccentricities sometimes rendered unlistenable. Here he's learned to mesh straight pop parodies with well-turned, thought-through, not-quite-representational lyrics in which Anway usually plays a guy. Many are just mildly subversive love songs. But my favorite is so flat-out campy it could have been inspired by a Man From U.N.C.L.E. rerun. B+

Holiday [Feels Good All Over, 1994]
more songs about songs and songs ("Swinging London," "Strange Powers") ***

The Charm of the Highway Strip [Merge, 1994]
Those who haven't already memorized Stephin Merritt's oeuvre will have to expend real effort acquiring a taste for him this late in the game, so they might as well experience the full glory of his eccentricity. The 6ths' album isn't just for his cult but by it, and Holiday may mislead the unwary into believing there's some warmth to him. This is where his dolorously impassive baritone and fugueing toy keyboards are at their most anonymous, original, tuneful, and forbidding. Since every single lyric mentions roads or trains, call it his concept album about escape, probably from himself. Even though it isn't where he rhymes "Coney Island" and "prostitutes in Thailand," it's verbal enough to inspire willing workers to decipher the lyric sheet, and its sonic identity takes the Casio demo to unheard of extremes--like something conceived by a Martian who'd read about country music in The New Grove but didn't happen to own any guitars. B+

Get Lost [Merge, 1995]
Reflecting a recording budget rumored to have risen by as much as $450, Stephin Merritt's craft shines brightly half the time--the song that mentions the Beach Boys actually feigns happiness. Just as important, his largely theoretical group starts to resemble a band--although cheap synth rhythms remain their thing, the banjo, flute, and ukulele are felt as unique sound, not just arch affectation. Here and there, you'd even swear Merritt is singing about his own feelings. How'd he ever come up with that? A-

69 Love Songs [Merge, 1999]
Accusing Stephin Merritt of insincerity would be like accusing Cecil Taylor of playing too many notes--not only does it go without saying, it's what he's selling. I say if he'd lived all 69 songs himself he'd be dead already, and the only reality I'm sure they attest to is that he's very much alive. I dislike cynicism so much that I'm reluctant ever to link it to creative exuberance. But this cavalcade of witty ditties--one-dimensional by design, intellectual when it feels like it, addicted to cheap rhymes, cheaper tunes, and token arrangements, sung by nonentities whose vocal disabilities keep their fondness for pop theoretical--upends my preconceptions the way high art's sposed to. The worst I can say is that its gender-fucking feels more wholehearted than its genre-fucking. Yet even the "jazz" and "punk" cuts are good for a few laughs--total losers are rare indeed. My favorite song from three teeming individually-purchasable-but-what-fun-would-that-be CDs: "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure," who has the savoir faire to rhyme with "closure," "kosher," and "Dozier" before Merritt murders him. A+

i [Nonesuch, 2004]
The concept is, not only do all these deadpan titles start with an i, they're performed (in alphabetical order!) by the deadpan I in question. When the songs are not just clever but lively--most spectacularly on the unrelenting "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend"--Stephin Merritt's demo-ready monotone could pass for a singing voice. When they're not--often not lively, and once or twice, heaven forfend, not clever--he sounds as if he's waiting to be swept off his feet by Sophie Von Otter. At which point we who were rooting for more "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" sneak out the back door. B+

Distortion [Nonesuch, 2008]
Because this time the object of Stephin Merritt's formal affection is rock 'n' roll noise, there's always a whiff of crude emotion in the deliberately simple tunes he's fitted to the task. The joke songs about topless nuns and zigzagging drag queens are as humanizing in their way as the tales of lost love one might take literally if someone else was singing them (which sometimes someone else is: Miss Shirley Simms). Whether he's wallowing putrescently with his zombie boy or dreaming alone in his soul-death monotone, Merritt's commitment to vernacular genres, the joke included, seems warm compared to the mix-and-match subgenre-splitting even the most lyrical young indie types don't know better than. The sly bastard believes in love after all. He's made a novelty record that gets deeper with time. A

Realism [Nonesuch, 2010]
Rhymes that could give Eminem a hernia, music that could give Sondheim the giggles ("You Must Be Out of Your Mind," "The Dolls' Tea Party"). ***

Love at the Bottom of the Sea [Merge, 2012]
These 15 song-puzzles in 34:20 are sophisticated amusements all, although often the amusement is attenuated and one I get bored with before half its 2:38 is over. How amusing they prove over time remains, of course, to be determined. Most amusing: "Your Girlfriend's Face" and "I'll Go Anywhere With Hugh" (tie). Most--sorry, it's the right word--soulful: "Andrew in Drag." I note for the record that all three are among the first five tracks. A-

50 Song Memoir [Nonesuch, 2017]
You know the drill. Five 10-song CDs that'd fit onto two, and thereby cost less than 40 bucks, with each year of Merritt's life allotted one song and each decade one CD as neatly as 69 Love Songs's three 23-song discs add up to that magic number. But this edition of the Magnetic Fields is barely a band--with occasional aid from Thomas Bartlett, Daniel Handler, and scattered others, Merritt plays over 100 instruments all told and assigns every lead vocal to his own depressive bass. Aptly autobiographical though 'tis, this is a negative, especially on disc two, which also honors John Foxx of Ultravox, who Merritt loved as a teenager and admires today--musically, there are numerous dead spots. Over the medium haul, however, every song is a grower, not merely because Merritt is quite a lyricist but because he's documenting an exceptional life that includes a childhood in a panoply of hippie communes and a young adulthood in a hodgepodge of bohemian penury. And some songs you'll connect with right away. Among my candidates: three-year-old loving a cat who hates him, five-year-old internalizing a Grace Slick rant, 13-year-old upgrading a duo called 1 1/2 into a trio who make the Shaggs sound like Yes, college man failing ethics, college grad loving Ethan Frome, twentysomething enjoying a live-in four-way, thirtysomething XXX-ing his ex, and fortysomething reaccessing a permanently impermanent NYC. But especially, 50-year-old kissing off the most horrendous of his stepfathers and 50-year-old emoting what kinda sounds like a love song. A-

Quickies [Nonesuch, 2020]
28 songs in 48 minutes, too few as clever as you'd hope, several rather nice, more than that stupider than this very smart man believes ("I Wish I Were a Prostitute Again," "My Stupid Boyrfriend," "Come, Life, Shaker Life!" "The Best Cup of Coffee in Tennessee") **

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