Mike Hull: So, we have decided to collaborate on a review of the new Magnetic Fields because we have both been really big fans of previous records by Stephin Merritt.
Quincey Brown: Yes indeed – the man behind the Magnetic Fields has been a constant in my life since my teens. Do you find yourself revisiting his records often?
Mike: I do, yeah. Certain albums especially. I think the obvious pick is 69 Love Songs. That was such a behemoth of a record; so varied in styles and tones but so consistently beautiful. There is so much to explore. Also, Get Lost continues to be a favourite album of mine. How about you?
Quincey: 69 Love Songs and i are firm favourites that I keep going back to. 69 Love Songs is just a masterpiece. I know ‘unprecedented’ is currently a word monopolised and overused by COVID-19 journalists, but heck, if there’s one album worthy of that sullied word, I think it’s this. They created a new league of concept album – 69 songs, all about love, and each song in a different genre.
Mike: The fact that it seems to be without filler and maintain such a high level of quality is really very impressive. The different genre for each track thing sounds like an awful idea on paper, but to me, it never felt like that’s what they were doing. Through all the many intriguing styles on the record, they generally maintained a sound that was very distinctive of the Magnetic Fields. Did you have any preconceptions going into Quickies? Is it a record that you have been excited about?
Quincey: As vast as Merritt’s expanding catalogue of work is, I have listened to much of it to death and so it’s great to have another 28 new tracks to explore. That said, I wasn’t massively excited. In a recent interview, Merritt said the record label pushed the concept of the album – that is, 28 short songs. I wondered if they were milking concept albums too hard.
Mike: Yeah, I was apprehensive too. The fact that they have gone with yet another concept frustrated me a bit. It all just felt a bit gimmicky, in a way that records such as, say, Holiday or Get Lost didn’t. And on initial plays, the songs struck me as forcibly themed and comedic, which got me a bit worried. Thankfully, my opinion quickly changed on subsequent listens.
Quincey: I’ve definitely started to find some tracks I really like, particularly in the latter half of the album. I’m sure others will grow on me.
Mike: I think there are heaps of really strong tracks on the album to be honest. I agree that they tend to be further back in the record. Some of the lyrics are brill. You Got a Friend in Beelzebub is a gem, with corkers like “Belphegor and Baphomet have had you round for tea, you sometimes drop round unannounced on Lucifer and me”.
Quincey: It’s a gorgeous track, that one– probably the prettiest song I’ve heard about Satan. With songs as short as 17s, and juvenile lyrics such as “The Biggest Tits in History” (which, yes, is about the bird variety of tit – not their freshest humour), will people new to the MF just see this album as one big joke?
Mike: This is it. Merritt is clearly witty, albeit very dry individual, and that has always come through in his music but some of the material here can feel slightly silly, which is frustrating because, musically, the songs are wonderful, and jokey word-play only distracts from the song. Biggest Tits, for instance, is a really decent track. I love its breezy, psychedelic lead guitar-lines.
Quincey: Favourite tracks?
Mike: I have taken the liberty to list my favourite five tracks, in no particular order:
Castle Down a Dirt Road. This is a classic, and beautiful Magnetic Fields song. It’s so simple but with great chord changes, and amazing midway synth work. Come Life Shaker Life, which has a lovely, almost vintage folk feel. You’ve Got a Friend in Beelzebub, She Says Hello, and The Best Cup of Coffee in Tennessee, which is flipping incredible. It’s Americana at its most sweet. How about yours? Any favourite picks?
Quincey: Great picks! My favourites were When The Brat Upstairs Got a Drum Kit, I Want To Join A Biker Gang & She Says Hello. Ah, She Says Hello! It reminds me of the famous 6-word tragic short story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”, allegedly written by Hemingway. Merritt has wrapped up a tragedy in an inebriated 1 minute. Brilliant.
Mike: Oh, I am glad you picked She Says Hello. It’s such a powerful song for such a ditty. I think I’m naturally drawn to the more melancholy and slightly darker sounding songs.
There are many that are very twee indeed. Songs such as My Stupid Boyfriend and When She Plays the Toy Piano are almost sickly-sweet. They make Belle and Sebastian sound like Cannibal Corpse.
The latter has quite dark and interesting lyrics which I found quite endearing (not unlike Belle and Sebastian).
Quincey: The main track I found too twee to stomach was Evil Rhythm. Together with Shirley Simm’s over-stretching her vocals, it sounded like something from an am-dram musical.
Mike: I hated that song too. In the most part, however, I think the album is really very enjoyable. In true Magnetic Fields style, the simplest of instruments can sound so full and passionate, its oozes fun and Merritt’s ability to write a jaw dropping selection of melodies is almost unparalleled.
Quincey: That’s so true, and a great perspective. I think I was approaching the album from a slightly different angle, as I regard Merritt as first and foremost a poet, with Quickies being a selection of short poems set to music, very nicely executed music. Merritt makes poetry more accessible, less of an archaic art form, at least to me.
Mike: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. Merritt has always been one of my favourite lyricists. Maybe this is why I can feel frustrated with his droll wordplay, which is often at the cost of beauty, or actual feeling or experience. However, Quickies is growing on me significantly with each listen and I think it’s a really worthy additional to an already wonderful catalogue of records.
Quincey: Yeah, Quickies gets a thumbs up from me – a thumb that gets less tentative with each listen.
Words by Mike Hull and Quincey Brown.