New Again: Stephin Merritt

Happy 10th album, Magnetic Fields! The band has just announced that its new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, will drop March 6, 2012, via Merge Records. 10th album?! We know, we forget the band is that old, too. Their first album, Distant Plastic Trees, was released all the way back in 1991—but something about their (misleadingly) cheery synth-pop melodies makes it seem more like they formed around the same time as Passion Pit and Grizzly Bear, than Nirvana and Pearl Jam. What trendsetters the band turned out to be.  On Love at the Bottom of the Sea, chief songwriter Stephin Merritt promises to stay true to Fields’ roots, albeit with the aid of exciting new synthesizer technology. Members Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, and John Woo, and frequent contributors Shirley Simms, Johny Blood, and Daniel Handler (aka children’s author Lemony Snicket) are all returning on Love.

In preparation for this momentous occasion, we’re reacquainting ourselves with the band’s storied past by revisiting this April 1995 piece on Merritt.
A Stephin Merritt-ocracy
By Ray Rogers
Photo courtesy of Simon Pendleton

A small, surly man with a sharp deadpan humor, Magnetic Fields songwriter Stephen Merritt writes larger-than-life honeycomb melodies that sweeten the sting of his words. “Every hour kills a flower / I’m falling out of love with you,” a typically sour sentiment, can be found on Wasps’ Nests (London), a sort of Stephin Merritt tribute record by his other band, the 6th’s. Merritt wrote and plays all the music and sings one song, and is joined by fourteen alternative-rock guest vocalists, including Luna’s Dean Wareham, Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow, Barbara Manning, Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan, and Helium’s Mary Timony. But Merritt, who crafts his songs with a perfectionist’s scrutiny and a timelessness lost on most of today’s trend-of-the-moment musicians, writes with a much bigger audience in mind than the left-of-the-dial college-rock ghetto. “There’s one song we do that all the indie-rock people hate because they say it sounds like an Abba song,” he says. “To me, that’s the greatest compliment they could give.”