The Magnetic Fields - The Charm of the Highway Strip Music Album Reviews

The Magnetic Fields - The Charm of the Highway Strip Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Stephin Merrit’s 1994 meta-country album, an idiosyncratic, lo-fi travelogue bursting with gothic wit and pathos.

Stephin Merritt’s early life makes for a great country song that no one would ever think to write. Born in 1965, he has claimed that he was “conceived by barefoot hippies on a houseboat in St. Thomas.” He likes to say that he and his single mother lived in 33 homes during his first 23 years, mainly in the northeastern United States. She was an English teacher and Buddhist seeker, drawn toward communes and homeopathic remedies. They were “sometimes very poor.” He grew up not knowing his father, an obscure folk-rock singer from the Virgin Islands. Even Merritt’s first name was in flux: He changed the spelling as a teenager, inspired by something he saw on television about junk mail and indulged by the progressive prep school he wound up attending in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Merritt’s musical interests were similarly wayward. He formed the Magnetic Fields with his longtime friend and collaborator Claudia Gonson in the late 1980s, when the Pixies’ dynamic Dadaism was about to burst out of the Boston club scene and help galvanize an alternative-rock revolution. But he was fixated instead on the stylish sophistication of ABBA or the teenage symphonies churned out by the Brill Building’s songwriting assembly line: clever, catchy, and unrepentantly beautiful. In 1991, as Nirvana were overhauling the music industry’s landscape with the sludgy stadium-rock verité of Nevermind, the Magnetic Fields’ debut single, “100,000 Fireflies,” on Cambridge indie label Harriett Records, was wry and wonderful bedroom synth-pop. Every witty lyric, sung at a teasing deadpan remove by guest vocalist Susan Anway, bears meticulous unpacking, but the conclusion could hardly have been more resolutely out of step with the era’s pedal-stomping MTV trends: “Why do we keep shrieking/When we mean soft things?/We should be whispering all the time.”

For all of Merritt’s grand ambitions, his fledgling band could barely draw a crowd, and the Magnetic Fields would soon bounce between labels the way a younger Merritt had once moved homes. “100,000 Fireflies” originally appeared on the Magnetic Fields’ first proper album, 1989’s Distant Plastic Trees, a set of eccentric synth-pop that was available only in Japan, via RCA Victor, and the UK, via indie label Red Flame (Merritt has claimed that Red Flame’s owner vanished with all the overseas proceeds). In 1992, they self-released The Wayward Bus, a homespun electronic update of swooning 1960s girl-group production; the same year, the House of Tomorrow EP followed on the Chicago indie Feel Good All Over. In the meantime, Mac McCaughan of North Carolina indie-rock pioneers Superchunk got hold of the “100,000 Fireflies” single and his band started raucously covering it at shows. Gonson met McCaughan after a Superchunk gig at Brandeis University, and a fateful decision rushed into view: The Magnetic Fields’ next album would be released on Merge, the label McCaughan co-founded with Superchunk bandmate Laura Ballance.

The Charm of the Highway Strip encapsulates the urbane, humane, and above all stubbornly idiosyncratic sensibility that has turned Merritt into one of the more fascinating songwriters of the last few decades. It wasn’t the first Magnetic Fields album, but because it was put out on Merge, it was the first to be widely available in the United States; it was also the first to have Merritt’s lead vocals, a unique morose rumbling not unlike that of Calvin Johnson’s creaky baritone. Like all of Merritt’s best work, it’s centered around a whimsically specific concept that ends up feeling marvelously universal, invoking tropes that could be considered hackneyed or artificial to achieve a genuine emotional connection. “You couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before,” Merritt has said of hearing songs by his heroes ABBA, Ella Fitzgerald, and Doris Day. “That’s what I want to do.”

For starters, The Charm of the Highway Strip was sort of a country album, or the Magnetic Fields’ version of one. “When we signed the Magnetic Fields, I thought they were going to be an electro-pop band, because the records they’d made up to that point reminded me of Yaz, which I loved,” McCaughan has said. “And then the first record they delivered to us was The Charm of the Highway Strip. So, even that was a left turn compared to what we expected from them.” In 1988, an A&R rep for Capitol paid the Magnetic Fields $2,000 to record the songs that would become The Charm of the Highway Strip but opted to pass on the demo, reputedly objecting, “I hate Johnny Cash.” They were talking about Merritt’s low voice, but the lyrics also center around country staples like the open road, trains, and—naturally—country songs. “I’m never going back to Jackson,” Merritt begins on “Lonely Highway,” the ghostly opening track. “I couldn't bear to show my face/I nearly killed you with my drinking/Wouldn’t be caught dead in that place.”

More specifically, then, this was a road-trip album, as gaudy and gothic as the neon-signed motels strewn alongside the American autobahn. Merritt designed the cover art—dashed yellow lines against a night-black backdrop—himself. On the lonesome, harpsichord-accented “Long Vermont Roads,” he reaches for geographical comparisons that any self-respecting Nashville songsmith might dismiss as a little strained: “Your eyes are the Mesa Verde/Big and brown and far away/And your eyes are Kansas City/In Kansas and in Missouri,” Merritt croons, pronouncing Missouri as “misery.” It’s so audaciously hokey that it somehow circles back again until the narrator’s meta sadness (“And country songs never help you sleep,” Merritt observes) becomes achingly real.

Merritt often protested that his songs weren’t based on his life. Maybe he protested too much: At its best moments, The Charm of the Highway Strip has a gloomy fatalism you might expect of someone who grew up leaving town almost twice a year. The stately electro-rock of “Born on a Train,” for instance, begins with Merritt invoking “ghost roads” and the “walking dead.” But what makes this song one of the finest in the Magnetic Fields’ vast catalog is the heartbreaking contradiction at its core, as Merritt ruefully sings, “And I’ve been makin’ promises I know I’ll never keep/One of these days I’m gonna leave you in your sleep.”Tramps like him weren’t born to run; they were destined to be pulled along by some powerful engine beyond their control.

None of this actually sounds like the alt-country of contemporaries such as Jeff Tweedy’s pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo, let alone the mainstream country stars of the era. Thrift-store keyboards, off-kilter percussion, and Magnetic Fields secret weapon Sam Davol’s swooping cello lope along over distant echoes of basslines from the Crystals or the Ronettes, all filtered through a lo-fi murk. But in the Magnetic Fields’ hands, these homespun tools convey vast expanses. “Fear of Trains,” which juxtaposes synth wobbles with jaunty Dukes of Hazzard plucks, is an empathetic sketch of a young woman encircled by the forces of race, religion, and class, all pithily transferred to a railroad phobia. Gay and Loud was the name of Merritt’s publishing company, but tender ballad “I Have the Moon” hints only quietly at a possible romance with a closeted lover: “You have become like other men/But let me kiss you once again,” Merritt dryly intones. The dream-like “When the Open Road Is Closing In,” with a lullaby pace and drowsy vocal delivery that belie its calliope-like keyboards, suggests that the highway isn’t just a part of life. Rather, life—as another poet once put it—is a highway: “The world is a motor inn in the Iowa highway slum,” Merritt sings, then warns, “You won’t be coming home again.”

The Charm of the Highway Strip arrived with all of the impact of a beat-up car stalled on the side of the road. Merritt refused to tour in support of it, and what little coverage the album got tended to pair it with its near-simultaneous follow-up, Holiday. But accolades slowly gathered. In a brief piece in September 1994, several months after the album’s release, SPIN’s Charles Aaron aptly highlighted Merritt’s “mordant lyrics that Morrissey might mope for.” Come December the magazine ranked the record as one of the year’s best, deeming it “metapop of an austere lushness.” (In the 1990s, Merritt worked as a copy editor for SPIN and Time Out New York.)

Of course, before long the Magnetic Fields would upend expectations again with 1999’s 69 Love Songs. An enormous gamble for Merge and also the band’s swan song on the label, the triple-CD set sold out immediately, with Robert Christgau awarding it an A+, The New York Times lauding Merritt as a “contrarian pop genius,” and assorted music publications eventually ranking it in their lists for the greatest albums of all time. Faced with dozens of fresh tracks to sort through, newcomers really would have their work cut out for them going back to find the charms of The Charm of the Highway Strip. But the album’s crafty country-western transience was evident in 69 Love Songs’ “Papa Was a Rodeo,” its slyly bleak determinism in the instant earworm “I’ll never say ‘happy anniversary’” from “I Think I Need a New Heart.” The projects are more alike than they seem. Holiday, too, with its vacationing abandon, now seems like another form of escape, of constant motion. Merritt, like any of us, has been endlessly adrift, perpetually in a state of subtle reinvention.

Additional research by Deirdre McCabe Nolan

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
The Magnetic Fields - The Charm of the Highway Strip Music Album Reviews The Magnetic Fields - The Charm of the Highway Strip Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on October 09, 2022 Rating: 5


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