The Magnetic Fields – I

First, I should point out this review is inevitably biased cos I know the band personally. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible and just review the music but of course the fact they’re all lovely peeps will colour my judgement.

But before I ever met them, I was a fan of TMF. The first I heard of them was on the ’92 SpinArt comp ‘One Last Kiss,’ which I got cos my band had a track on it. Their beautiful pop song, ‘100,000 Fireflies’ clanked into view and I knew I was hooked.

‘I’, the new TMF album carries on the love affair.

Sonically, it’s not hugely different to ’69,’ being quite sparse and less obviously synthy than earlier albums like ‘Holiday’ and ‘Get Lost.’ The synthpop kid in me is a little disappointed by this, I do wish there was a bit more throbbing electronics going on, like in ‘Smoke And Mirrors’ or ‘Strange Powers.’ But perhaps the band have got bored of doing that and, besides, the last few years has seen a glut of schmindie kids getting Moogs and going “electroclash.” In not going with that commercial flow, TMF have carved themselves an original little niche.

The songs are classic Merritt: bittersweet, accusatory, confessional and always bordering on the right side of studied declamation. ‘I Thought You Were My Boyfriend’ wraps all of those qualities up in the one song (“Some guys have a beer and they’ll do anything…”) but they re-occur throughout ‘I.’

My second favourite so far is ‘I Don’t Really Love You Anymore’ with it’s upbeat slagging and confusing melodic nods to both ‘All My Loving’ and ‘You Won’t See Me.’ Did he fall out with a Beatles’ fan?

Stephin’s voice seems even stronger and more assured than on ’69,’ he seems completely at ease with it as an emotional instrument now, compared to his earlier vocals. He’s always had a beautiful, bassy voice and it’s lovely to hear him opening up a bit more with it. And when he stacks up the harmonies, like on ‘I Wish I Had An Evil Twin,’ it’s like a yummy doleful choir. It’s another thematically excellent song – who hasn’t wished for their own despicable natural clone, eh? I know I have…

If I had to pick a single from this album, it would be my favourite song, ‘If There’s Such A Thing As Love.’ The intro is Motown poppy and the drumming (which I assume is Claudia?) has got a great feel. It’s by far the danciest track on this album. And listen to Claudia’s ascending vocal harmonies near the end…mmm… They remind me a bit of the backing vocals in ‘The Day Before You Came.’ An immensely catchy song.

‘I’m Tongue Tied’ reminds me hugely of Nilsson, it’s got that blend of classic ’20s/’30s popness with lots of plinking and plonking going on (and what sounds like a very subtle cello countermelody courtesy of Sam). The brushes are what make this song for me.

Sam and John weave through the intro to ‘Irma,’ twisting around a cold piano figure and, for Merritt, an off-kilter vocal melody. It’s a beautifully arranged song, all the parts fitting like tiny cogs inside a dented pocket watch. The only problem with this song is that it’s too short. It can’t really be 2.23 long, can it? Seems like 30 seconds. I think this song is a grand-daughter to ‘With Whom To Dance,’ another song which came went far too quickly.

‘It’s Only Time’ is another great pop song. You get used to that with Merritt. On anyone else’s album, it’d be the standout. Here…well, it’s got a lot of company. The lyrics, the arrangement, the glockenspiel, the high piano melody plinking along, Merritt’s ‘marry me!’ entreaty, they all come together wonderfully. Trust me, although it sounds sparse and simple, there’s a ton of stuff going on here. But the deftness of touch is what makes it a pop song and not a confusing collage.

That’s all the positive stuff: now for the baaad.

The first thing is a minor quibble – I would have loved another lead vocal from Claudia. Or at least a duet? C’mon, Stephin, stop Bogarting the mic.

My other criticism is that while this is a great pop album, I’m not sure if it’s a breakthrough TMF album. By which I mean I judge them by much higher standards than other bands. Believe me, if this was a debut album by some unknowns, I’d be jizzing myself and shakily applying to their stalker list. BUT… I don’t know if it’s enough of a progression from ’69.’ And that being so, I don’t know how many new fans it will win.

That may sound harsh but that’s because I don’t want TMF to languish forever as the special secret of a few thousand hipsters, scattered around the world. They’re a brilliant pop band. They should be in the top ten charts of every country in the world. Not because commercial/financial success means anything but because these songs deserve to be heard by millions of people. Millions.

That’s why this great album has made me a bit sad. In my dream alternate reality, I see Stephin rapping next to Pharell, Claudia doing solo spots on TOTP and John and Sam involved in stinky fish-based orgies backstage at the Crue re-formation tour. Y’know, proper pop stars!

Meanwhile… back in this universe, TMF aren’t a total secret since the critical success of ’69.’ But they remain a name-dropper’s band, marginal to the big, shiny, gorgeously vulgar world of chart pop. People who have never heard a note of their music dismiss them as ‘arch’ or ‘clever clever’ which means they’ll never get to hear some of the best pop songs ever written.

“Baby you could be famous if you could just get out of this town…”