Built around the nonpareil songwriting of Stephin Merritt, the Magnetic Fields became one of the most important and representative groups of the indie rock genre.
Marked by a flare for tender melodies, acerbically witty lyrics, and uncluttered arrangements, the band evolved from the stripped-down synth pop of their early albums into more organic readings of Merritt's intelligent songcraft. Prolific to the point of spilling over into several side projects, Merritt maintained a remarkable level of quality with the Magnetic Fields, even as they began exploring ambitious conceptual releases like 1999's three-volume collection 69 Love Songs or 2020's Quickies, a collection of 28 short songs, some of which clocked in at less than 30 seconds long.
Merritt was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1965 and began recording music on his own four-track at a young age. The Magnetic Fields began as a studio project (first named Buffalo Rome) in 1990 while Merritt was living in Boston. He enlisted high school friend Claudia Gonson and several others to bring the songs to life in a live setting, and formed the PoPuP label to release the band's recorded output. In the studio, Merritt served as songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, though he was often joined by Gonson on percussion and Sam Davol on cello and flute, among other guest artists who helped flesh out the arrangements. First album Distant Plastic Trees was released in 1991, featuring vocalist Susan Anway singing lead on songs penned by Merritt and recorded in arrangements that called to mind the minimal synth pop of Young Marble Giants. Anway sang lead again on the Phil Spector-inspired 1992 sophomore album The Wayward Bus, but she left the group afterwards as Merritt took over vocal duties for many songs.
In 1994, the band signed on with Merge Records for the release of their third long-player, The Charm of the Highway Strip. This would be the first album where Merritt's low-end croon would be lead on most songs, and it also began showing hints of his tendency towards organizing his records thematically with almost all of the songs centered around themes of travel or transit. 1994 also saw the release of Holiday, an album that had been completed in 1993 and was intended to be the band's third LP. Feel Good All Over, the Chicago label that issued the record, had held up its release for over a year while the group signed on with Merge and continued writing and releasing new material at their usual speedy clip.
The Magnetic Fields' fifth album, Get Lost, surfaced in 1995, as did Wasps' Nests, the debut LP from ambitious studio project the 6ths. With the 6ths, Merritt invited different vocalists to sing on songs he'd written and recorded instrumentals for. In addition to the one song he sang himself, the album featured guest singers like Helium's Mary Timony, Luna's Dean Wareham, Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley, and many others. This era was one of multiple side projects for Merritt, new releases from the Magnetic Fields slowing while he concentrated on projects like the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes, all of which retained Merritt's melodic style and dry humor.
In 1999, the Magnetic Fields released their sixth and up to that point most conceptually ambitious album, 69 Love Songs. Merritt had originally imagined the record as a theatrical revue, taking inspiration from musical theater and composer Charles Ives' monumental early-'20s collection 114 Songs. Merritt originally considered writing 100 songs for the album, but he thought that might be too long and pared it down to 69 songs, some very short and some the standard pop-song length, collected over three discs. The release was the band's critical peak, producing many of their best-loved songs and taking them from cult status to underground darlings feeling the embrace of new mainstream listeners.
Merritt released two solo albums over the next few years, and in 2004, the Magnetic Fields returned with seventh album i. The LP would be their first for their new label, Nonesuch, and also the first in a series of albums unofficially dubbed the "no synth trilogy," eschewing electronic elements for arrangements heavy on strings, guitar, and other organic sounds. The record's conceptual layers also included the lyrics to every song beginning with the word "I" and the track listing running in alphabetical order. 2008's Distortion was a set of songs that leaned into abrasive, noisy production, and the "no synth trilogy" concluded with the acoustic-folkiness of 2010's Realism. The band returned to Merge for the release of tenth album Love at the Bottom of the Sea in 2012, and they also returned to the effervescent synth pop sound of their early days for the LP's short, bubbly songs.
In 2017, the Magnetic Fields' 11th album, 50 Song Memoir, was released. Merritt said the record was meant to reflect his first 50 years of life on Earth, as well as the 50 different musical instruments used during the recording sessions. In late 2016, several months before the album was released, Merritt set out on a series of live dates in which he performed the song cycle as part of a show directed by José Zayas. The group's 12th set arrived in May 2020; entitled Quickies, the project was comprised of 28 tracks, ranging in duration from less than 30 seconds to two-and-a-half minutes. ~ Fred Thomas, Rovi