If you’re not already a fan of The Magnetic Fields, here are my favorite hauntingly beautiful songs from their first six albums — a crash course in creepy!
I’m a very proud The Magnetic Fields superfan, and it’s that grim obscurity that draws me in the most, to the point where my final collegiate essay was on their history and the things that make them unique. The works of Stephin Merritt and his company — having been minus Anway since the band’s second record The Wayward Bus, but adding manager/vocalist/drummer Claudia Gonson, vocalist Shirley Simms, and string performers John Woo and Sam Davol — have entranced me for years, and I want to help spread their works.
That’s why I present to you the darkest and most spooky tracks from their discography, as a sort of gateway drug.
Each studio album gets two songs — one chosen track and an honorable mention. This article will cover the band’s albums through the 90s. (Stay tuned for part two of this article, featuring songs from all albums released after “69 Love Songs”).
1991: Distant Plastic Trees – “100000 Fireflies”
“I have a mandolin, I play it all night long, it makes me want to kill myself.”
The opening line itself presented above would have ensured that this would be my pick for this record, but then you add the utter madness of the higher synths and Anway’s high and crystal-clear vocals. Both of these add new layers to the track – it almost seems like a lament sung by a 90s era ghost yearning for a long lost loved one. It’s a song of melancholy and longing, but one presented so strangely that it could be seen as an ode to giving up altogether.
Honorable Mention – “Babies Falling”
A cover of The Wild Stares track, this song is admittedly hard to listen to. Not because of any harsh sounds or anything, but because the mix keeps Anway’s vocals shrouded by bells and bubbles. But this tune of ghosts and abandonment is still haunting — if only for Anway’s vocals and delivery of the simple question: ‘Where did you go?”
1992: The Wayward Bus – “Suddenly, There is A Tidal Wave”
With instrumentation like a Tom Waits album turned twee, this tune about complicated relationships and trying to buck society involves the complete literal-or-figurative destruction of a town for mocking two people in what could be called love — the image of which is still in your mind when the song cuts off sharply as many Fields songs do. There’s an additional layer of sadness here too – since this is the last track Anway would sing lead vocals on for the band.
Honorable Mention – “Jeremy”
One of the peppier sounding tracks on the album, Anway sings about long-lost youth and finding strange things in maps of unseen worlds. Past the lost love or friendship, there’s also a layer of death hanging over this whole track — with references to Isadora Duncan’s choking via white scarf and the lines “You’re alone, and it’s over, you’re alone, with your gun. You’re alone, from now on, you’re all alone, and you’re not young.” This is the only point where a gun is mentioned in the whole song and it doesn’t bode well.
1994: The Charm of the Highway Strip – “Crowd of Drifters”
The first record of theirs to openly deal in the supernatural — and the first to have Merritt’s voice on lead — this song is from the perspective of a vampire simply trying to make his way in this strange world. Once a travelling salesman turned creature of the night, he laments his inability to live amongst humanity and his collective’s tendency to burn and destroy. Sung with a Nick Cave-esque slur in his voice, the misery and darkness carried in Merritt’s vocals is emphasized by the flutes and sparse percussion of the piece.
Honorable Mention – “Fear of Trains”
While not as creepy sounding as you’d think, this song’s scary simply because it’s the tale of a Blackfoot Indian girl losing everything she’s ever had to the fist of the white capitalist and developing a fear of trains because they’ve taken all she’s loved. More real than anything else on the album, the fact that this kind of thing keeps happening makes this song truly scary.
1994: Holiday – “Deep Sea Diving Suit”
Carrying far lighter fare than the April release, the September record Holiday is mostly made out of love songs. Still, this track about a diver struggling with the betrayal of, and a gun in his face from, someone he calls his best friend. It’s implied that it’s because he couldn’t get to him, weighed down by a metaphorical or literal deep sea diver’s suit. It’s not the best of the band’s tracks, but it’s still worth a listen.
Honorable Mention – “Take Ecstasy With Me”
Just a little ditty about two people in love escaping the misery of their lives by taking ecstasy.
Honestly, I mostly recommend listening to these two tracks and “Strange Powers” and skipping the rest. This isn’t the best of their albums.
1995: Get Lost – “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do”
Getting grimmer and darker with the tracks about miserable relationships – something that’ll serve the band well with their next record – this is openly about a relationship that’s spiteful and hated. With a chorus that’s just “I dedicate this song to you, for all the desperate things you made me do. I’d like to beat you black and blue, for all the agony you have put me through.” It even references crushing the hated lover’s skull in the final verse. It’s some good stuff, and you can still dance to it.
Honorable Mention – “Love Is Lighter Than Air”
It’s still a love song, but this track does involve two people getting kidnapped so they can watch a dude performing mime. If that’s not terrifying to you, I don’t know what is.
1999: 69 Love Songs – “Yeah, Oh Yeah!”
If you’re a long-term reader of my work – or have at least read my article on my top ten Murder Ballads – you already know how I feel about this song. It’s one of the more infamous Magnetic Fields songs, especially juxtaposed to the more famous and romantic “Book of Love” two disks before, and it’s absolutely wonderful. If you want to know my full feelings, look at the other article but it’s one of my top murder songs for a reason.
Honorable Mention – “Busby Berkeley Dreams”
Let’s be real, there’s a lot of songs that could have gone into this space. From “my mother should have murdered me, what jury would convict her babe?” in “Boa Constrictor” to “no one will ever love you honestly” in the song of essentially the same name, this album gets dark. I picked this one specifically because it’s a delusional man clinging to a dead marriage and a dead dream, grasping straws at gorgeous Busby Berkeley fantasies of him and his spouse. He even admits that they’ll need to kill him to get rid of him. It’s subtle but it’s scary as hell.