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Alternative & Indie - Released May 15, 2020 | Nonesuch

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Is there such a thing as being too prolific or having too much to say? Stephin Merritt, one of popular music's true eccentrics, is also one of its most copious songwriters. Over the years, in side projects like The 6ths, The Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes, as well as his main band, The Magnetic Fields, Merritt has spun his own wonderfully ornate and populous creative universe, one that has often expressed itself in massive multi-song, multi-volume epics. While he may never again equal the massive chunk of creativity of the exceptional 69 Love Songs (1999), Merritt did give it an equally compelling run for its money with his last outing, 50 Song Memoir (2017). While there is no doubting the craft and intelligence behind his artful melodies and silly, absurdist sense of humor, there is an argument to be made that Merritt might focus his vision more effectively by distilling even further his folk pop sprawl. That may be some of the inspiration behind Quickies, a 28-track collection of bite-sized snatches of love, wit and wisdom. Musically, the uber brief format—all songs are well under the two and a half minute mark, with the shortest at 13 seconds—compresses his synth folk melodies into hooky flashes, all orchestrated with his trademark blend of keyboards (Moog, ARP, Omnichord, Wurlitzer) and exotic acoustic instruments (cigar box guitar, banjolele, wine box cello). Along with Merritt's deep, resounding croon, the vocals are handled by longtime Magnetic Fields vocalists Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms. Lyrically, random thoughts become tuneful snatches with typically droll titles like "Kraftwerk in a Blackout," Let's Get Drunk Again (and Get Divorced)," and "I Wish I Had Fangs and Tail." With highlights like the New Orleans swirl "Evil Rhythm," the abject frolic "I've Got a Date with Jesus" or topical single "The Day The Politicians Died," these deadpan bursts are not only essential for fans but a prime introduction to the austere methods and approachable humor of Merritt's musical cosmos. © Robert Baird/Qobuz
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Alternative & Indie - Released February 13, 2017 | Nonesuch

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Stephin Merritt has never been afraid to think big, at least as far as his music is concerned, and his ad-hoc group the Magnetic Fields enjoyed their breakthrough with the wildly ambitious 1999 set 69 Love Songs, a three-disc collection featuring, yes, 69 songs about love. While that album bests 2017's 50 Song Memoir by 19 tracks, in nearly all other respects, 50 Song Memoir is a project of even greater scale and scope. Begun as Merritt was celebrating his 50th birthday, 50 Song Memoir finds him embracing pop songs as the medium for an autobiography, with each of the 50 tracks representing a different year in his life. The result is not an operatic narrative that ticks off various major events in Merritt's first half-century, but 50 Song Memoir does deliver a fascinating portrait of Merritt's life and times. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Merritt shares tales of his truly strange childhood, his interactions with his mother's many eccentric boyfriends, the joys and annoyances of life in New York City, his love of the city's bars and nightclubs, his dreams of being John Foxx of Ultravox, his hatred of surfing, relationships with numerous romantic partners, and the role music has played in nearly all of these episodes. As is his habit with the Magnetic Fields, Merritt handled the sizable majority of the instrumental chores on this album himself, making use of his large collection of electronic and acoustic instruments, and the results have a clanky, homespun charm that meshes nicely with the alternately buoyant and snarky tone of his frequently lovely melodies. But the real star of 50 Song Memoir is Stephin Merritt the songwriter -- these missives are full of wit, intelligence, and engaging wordplay that bring a playful touch to even the most dire subject matter (and a very human sense of gravity to the funnier numbers). And the closer, "Somebody's Fetish," is a hilarious but encouraging statement of how love eventually comes to us all, showing even Merritt knows the value of a happy ending. There are very few working songwriters who could have pulled off this sort of a project this well, and even fewer who could make this giant-sized song cycle feel so intimate and accessible. 50 Song Memoir is a rare example of Stephin Merritt offering a look into his offstage life, but just as importantly it's a reminder of why he's a truly great songwriter, and this ranks with his finest work. © Mark Deming /TiVo
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Alternative & Indie - Released January 22, 2010 | Nonesuch

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All it takes is a few seconds into Realism’s familiar first track (the warm, wily, and weary "You Must Be out of Your Mind") to jump to the conclusion that Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt has simply run out of musical motifs with which to embed his seemingly endless supply of biting, bittersweet lyrics. Happily, that’s not the case, as the remaining 12 songs on Realism show significant musical growth for one of pop music’s greatest corner bar-, heartbreak-, and sarcasm-obsessed napkin poets. The antithesis of 2008’s noisy Distortion, Realism revels in folk music in a way that hasn’t appeared on a Magnetic Fields album since 1990’s Distant Plastic Trees. The songs sound just like their titles would suggest, with "We Are Having a Hootenanny" doing just that, "The Doll’s Tea Party" conjuring up images of pastoral English gardens, and "Seduced and Abandoned" suggesting the wee hours of a Tin Pan Alley cabaret. Merritt, who wields a voice that has grown from that of a disheartened, mumbling wallflower to a classy, full-throated baritone, peppers each tune (as well as those sung by the lovely Claudia Gonson) with the usual witticisms (“I want you crawling back to me/Down on your knees/Like an appendectomy”), but there’s an elegance to his prose this time around that suggests there's not only a musical sea change at work. By far his most listenable and fully realized work since 1999’s mammoth 69 Love Songs, Realism feels slight because it is. It’s hard to hear someone so adept with a poison pen preen instead of brood, but it’s also rewarding. In the end, longtime fans will want to go back to the opening cut and seek out the comfort of those familiar first three chords that, like a seasoned bluesman with his E to A to B, have become synonymous with their creator, but hopefully, they’ll decide to take another trip through the countryside, soak in some much needed sun, and let bygones be bygones. © James Christopher Monger /TiVo

Alternative & Indie - Released September 14, 1999 | Merge Records

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Alternative & Indie - Released February 25, 2020 | Nonesuch

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Alternative & Indie - Released May 8, 2020 | Nonesuch

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Alternative & Indie - Released May 3, 2004 | Nonesuch

The explosion of material that resulted in the Magnetic Fields' triple-disc opus 69 Love Songs would've wiped out the average tunesmith, but mastermind Stephin Merritt wields a pen of bottomless ink. Like a long-distance runner, he paced himself, saving up material lest his many guises should grow restless. The 6ths released Hyacinths and Thistles the following year; 2002 saw the sophomore effort from the Future Bible Heroes and the soundtrack to the James Bolton film Eban and Charley; and in 2003 he scored yet another soundtrack, this time to the Katie Holmes drama Pieces of April. Nearly five years after Love Songs, the Magnetic Fields returned with i, a "synth free" collection of love, life, and loss that relies heavily on cello, guitar, and that most selfish of vowels, the letter I. Merritt's kitchen produces pop confections that can rot teeth, but the bitter aftertaste owes more to Randy Newman than it does Belle & Sebastian. He may be a stalker of clever rhymes about hopeless romantics and lost opportunities, but it's the failed and despondent receiving the brunt of his obsessive detail. On the deceptive lullaby "I Was Born," he laments, "Growing older is killing a child who laughed and smiled at anything." The specter of age is not immune to the pain of a broken heart, and the dense Brill Building aesthetic of songs like "I Don't Believe You" and "Looked All Over Town" resonate with the kind of desperation that's usually reserved for the young and naïve, but has manifested itself into -- to quote a song title from the 6ths -- an "Aging Spinster." Musically, i isn't that much of a departure from previous outings, as the "organic" instrumentation is often treated with the same effects that Merritt utilizes on his synth-based recordings. Cabaret-style pieces like "In an Operetta" are lent added weight by the self-described "awful" singer's newfound range, and when he unveils a surprisingly sweet and delicate falsetto on the gorgeous closer, "It's Only Time," the listener's voice breaks right along with him. There are plenty of prolific artists putting to tape their every whim, and Merritt's no exception. He may spread himself thin when overseeing his army of side projects, but when he leads his Magnetic Fields into battle, the results are always in the public's favor. © James Christopher Monger /TiVo
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Alternative & Indie - Released January 11, 2008 | Nonesuch

Stephin Merritt celebrates all that is fuzzy, sexy, and drenched in reverb on Distortion, a 13-track rendering of the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy through the barbed sieve of the Magnetic Fields mastermind's seemingly endless notebook of relationship dos and don'ts and self-effacing cognitive therapy sessions. The unwavering decision to match the production with the album title is admirable, but one that will no doubt filter out the listeners who rely on Merritt's simple, clean melodicism to reel them in. By mirroring the lo-fi sunshine goth aesthetic that the Reid brothers so effortlessly beat into the ground in the mid- to late '80s, Distortion becomes more about style than substance, often burying the lyrics in an avalanche of mud that clings to each instrument (be it cello, Farfisa organ, accordion, or guitar) like pet hair on a pea coat. That said, patience rewards those who stick around for the credits, and acclimation to the pounding (yet still sweet) industrial landscapes comes about eight songs in with the instant classic "Too Drunk to Dream," a vintage Fields rave-up that launches out of a Gregorian-style intro that boldly proclaims "Sober, life is a prison/Shitfaced, it is a blessing/Sober, nobody wants you/Shitfaced, they're all undressing." It's a double-sided hook that clears the murkiness from the remaining five tracks, while simultaneously improving the first half (especially tracks like "California Girls" and "Please Stop Dancing") when spun for a second or third time. As usual, Merritt doles out vocal duties like handbills, making the whole affair feel a little more like a 6ths production rather than a Magnetic Fields event, and Shirley Simms, who lent her lovely pipes to 69 Love Songs and 2006's Showtunes, provides the album with many of its finest moments, specifically the infectious "Drive on, Driver" and the lovely closer, "Courtesans." In the end, though, even Simms' impossibly fluid voice can't cut through all of the noise. In some ways, it feels like a step backward, and even if that was the intention, it's disappointing to climb Distortion's many lovely peaks, only to be obscured by clouds. © James Christopher Monger /TiVo
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Alternative & Indie - Released March 10, 2017 | Nonesuch

Booklet
Stephin Merritt has never been afraid to think big, at least as far as his music is concerned, and his ad-hoc group the Magnetic Fields enjoyed their breakthrough with the wildly ambitious 1999 set 69 Love Songs, a three-disc collection featuring, yes, 69 songs about love. While that album bests 2017's 50 Song Memoir by 19 tracks, in nearly all other respects, 50 Song Memoir is a project of even greater scale and scope. Begun as Merritt was celebrating his 50th birthday, 50 Song Memoir finds him embracing pop songs as the medium for an autobiography, with each of the 50 tracks representing a different year in his life. The result is not an operatic narrative that ticks off various major events in Merritt's first half-century, but 50 Song Memoir does deliver a fascinating portrait of Merritt's life and times. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Merritt shares tales of his truly strange childhood, his interactions with his mother's many eccentric boyfriends, the joys and annoyances of life in New York City, his love of the city's bars and nightclubs, his dreams of being John Foxx of Ultravox, his hatred of surfing, relationships with numerous romantic partners, and the role music has played in nearly all of these episodes. As is his habit with the Magnetic Fields, Merritt handled the sizable majority of the instrumental chores on this album himself, making use of his large collection of electronic and acoustic instruments, and the results have a clanky, homespun charm that meshes nicely with the alternately buoyant and snarky tone of his frequently lovely melodies. But the real star of 50 Song Memoir is Stephin Merritt the songwriter -- these missives are full of wit, intelligence, and engaging wordplay that bring a playful touch to even the most dire subject matter (and a very human sense of gravity to the funnier numbers). And the closer, "Somebody's Fetish," is a hilarious but encouraging statement of how love eventually comes to us all, showing even Merritt knows the value of a happy ending. There are very few working songwriters who could have pulled off this sort of a project this well, and even fewer who could make this giant-sized song cycle feel so intimate and accessible. 50 Song Memoir is a rare example of Stephin Merritt offering a look into his offstage life, but just as importantly it's a reminder of why he's a truly great songwriter, and this ranks with his finest work. © Mark Deming /TiVo
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Alternative & Indie - Released March 6, 2012 | Merge Records

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Alternative & Indie - Released December 2, 2016 | Merge Records

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Alternative & Indie - Released April 16, 2020 | Nonesuch

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Alternative & Indie - Released November 17, 2016 | Nonesuch

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Alternative & Indie - Released April 18, 1994 | Merge Records

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Alternative & Indie - Released April 1, 2020 | Nonesuch

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Alternative & Indie - Released January 12, 1999 | Merge Records

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Alternative & Indie - Released September 19, 1995 | Merge Records

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Alternative & Indie - Released February 1, 2012 | Merge Records

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Alternative & Indie - Released January 31, 2012 | Merge Records

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Alternative & Indie - Released January 12, 1999 | Merge Records