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October 08, 2008

The Magnetic Fields


It's hard to describe the moment when I first heard The Magnetic Fields. I think the first song I heard was "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits". There's a moment of 80's synthesizer then a male voice that, in this song, happens to be singing in a falsetto. It's like something right out of the 80's but...well, it's not quite. The lyrics are funny, sexual in a childish way, and clever. It definitely isn't Duran Duran-type 80's. It's more kid in his bedroom with a Casio-type 80's.

Then I heard "I Don't Want To Get Over You" and I was knocked to the floor. Still with that crazy 80's synthesizer, but the voice was deadpan deep, strangely flat but surprisingly expressive. That's the Stephin Merritt I've come to love (though he'd hate me saying so). And the lyrics...

"I don't wanna get over you. I guess I could take a sleeping pill and sleep at will and not have to go through what I go through. I guess I should take Prozac right and just smile all night at somebody new. Somebody not too bright but sweet and kind, who would try to get you off my mind, I could leave this agony behind, which is just what I'd do if I wanted to but I don't wanna get over you.

"'Cause I don't wanna get over love. I could listen to my therapist, pretend you don't exist, and not have to dream of what I dream of. I could listen to all my friends and go out again and pretend it's enough. Or I could make a career of being blue. I could dress in black and read Camus. Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth like I was 17, that would be a scream, but I don't wanna get over you."

I felt like I'd never heard a break-up expressed quite that way. You hear a lot of "I'm glad you left me, I'm so much better" or "Why did you leave me? I still want you back" or "It's so hard since you left, I just want to feel better and be over you." But you don't really hear, "I don't really expect you back but I love being in love with you so much that I'm happier feeling the pain of missing you and loving you." That line, "'Cause I don't wanna get over love," is so ridiculously expressive of a feeling that I think everyone understands but never really thought about.

That song, and the bunny song, and 67 others are on an epic 3 disc set about love called 69 Love Songs that I would recommend everyone get and listen to. Admittedly Stephin's voice isn't for everyone. My husband seems to really love Stephin's songwriting but finds his voice really hard to listen to. He absolutely adores "I Don't Want To Get Over You" but it's because Mary Lou Lord does a wonderful cover of it. The last time we saw Stephin Merritt, his voice actually put Jeff to sleep (during the talking portion, not the singing portion).

There was a weird convergence in my life about 2 years ago. I worked in the Inner Sunset in SF and I was at lunch. I was reading one of the Lemony Snicket books in Spanish, which is something I do to try to teach myself Spanish. While deep in trying to comprehend what I was reading, a business card dropped on my book. I looked at it, then after a moment I looked up. A figure was disappearing out the door. I looked at the card again and it said "Lemony Snicket." Just as mysterious in real life. Until I did some research. Lemony Snicket is really Daniel Handler who lives in the Cole Valley area of SF (near the inner Sunset). In addition to writing the Lemony Snicket books, he writes novels.

Not long thereafter I was at Green Apple Books on Clement and I saw a sign up that was for free tickets to see an interview with Daniel Handler (I think it was City Arts and Lectures). I signed up and I won the tickets. Jeff and I went and Daniel Handler was incredibly smart and funny and so entertaining to listen to. I became a devoted fan.

This was all shortly after I discovered The Magnetic Fields and had become a fan. I found out soon after that Stephin Merritt and Daniel Handler are friends. In fact, Daniel Handler plays accordion and plays with The Magnetic Fields sometimes. And not long ago, Stephin Merritt, under the umbrella of one of his other bands, The Gothic Archies, put out an album called The Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events on which each of the 13 songs was about each of the 13 Lemony Snicket books.

I saw The Magnetic Fields perform once and they were great. Daniel Handler came out and performed a song from The Tragic Treasury. And I saw Stephin Merrit give a talk (the one where Jeff fell asleep) in which Daniel Handler was the moderator and they performed together afterward. I've come to understand that it's relatively unusual to see The Magnetic Fields or Stephin live because he hates performing live. One problem is that he has a hearing issue that makes loud noises like applause very painful. Another problem is that he really doesn't like leaving his apartment in New York. He's kind of a misanthrope. I feel lucky to have seen him because he really is fascinating and extremely talented.

Stephin has several bands--The Magnetic Fields, The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and The 6ths. They're all based around his talent though they seem to fulfill different musical needs for him. The 6ths basically records his songs with a different guest singer performing each song. He's also done some soundtracks and some musical theater as himself. But I have to say The Magnetic Fields is my favorite of his incarnations.

If you can only buy one Magnetic Fields item, get 69 Love Songs. I think it's their most accessible works and it has a lot of brilliant songs on it. I also really like Distortion, which is their most recent album. All of the songs involve some kind of musical distortion. They even distort the accordion. I'm also a big fan of "i" which is an album in which every song begins with the letter "i". But really, if you like The Magnetic Fields, you can't go wrong with any of their albums.

By the way, when I got married this June we chose a Magnetic Fields song from 69 Love Songs as our first dance. It had the perfect mix of romance and sarcasm for us. It's called "The Book of Love." My favorite verse is, "The book of love is long and boring. And written very long ago. It's full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes. And things we're all too young to know. But I, I love it when you give me things and you, you oughta give me wedding rings." It's really a beautiful and sweet song about how all the trappings of love that we're expected to have around us are kind of silly but that love itself is wonderful and the person you love is wonderful and ultimately it's about getting married. Perfect for us.

Posted by Alyssa at October 8, 2008 12:37 AM

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