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Getting Into: The Magnetic Fields

Today, the Magnetic Fields — the quirky pop band fronted by the deep-voiced Stephin Merritt — release Distortion, the band's first album in four years. It's already garnering positive reviews, and so in its honor, I thought I'd suggest a way to navigate through the band's nearly two-decade career. While there are lots of good starting points, here's my guide to Getting Into the Magnetic Fields.

Beginner: The Charm of the Highway Strip and i

These are two fairly different albums, as Magnetic Fields releases go: One, 1994's Charm of the Highway Strip, is heavy with synthesizers, while 2004's i is mostly acoustic. But they're both good introductions to some of the Fields' standard tricks. Both are concept albums, for one thing: Highway Strip is full of songs about traveling, while i is, well, 14 songs starting with the letter I. Both are also good introductions to Merritt's story-like lyrics and his deep and unusual voice. You may not adore them both — personally, Highway Strip is my favorite Fields album and i my least-favorite — but if you like either one, you'll find more to love in the band's catalog. Also, if you want an intro to Merritt's music in general, not just the Fields, check out the Pieces of April soundtrack for a great overview.

For my intermediate and advanced selections, just

Intermediate: 69 Love Songs

Merritt's magnum opus is exactly what it claims to be: 69 songs about love, spread over three 23-song discs. It's a lot for a beginner to digest, but it's the perfect thing to turn a casual fan into a more serious one. The songs run the gamut of musical styles, from sweet ballads to country-tinged anthems to songs so drenched in synth it's hard to make out the lyrics. (It also has a fair number of songs sung by band members other than Merritt, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on how you feel about his voice.) Merritt's known for his acerbic wit and cynical lyrics, and that's certainly present here — there's a song called "The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be," for heaven's sake — but there are also some legitimately sweet and hopeful songs, including "Asleep and Dreaming." If you're buying, spring for the boxed set rather than buying each album individually: The booklet is worth it.

Advanced: Holiday, Get Lost, The Wayward Bus/Distant Plastic Trees, and Merritt's multitude of side projects.

These three Magnetic Fields albums are a bit less refined than the ones mentioned above. That doesn't mean they're not worthwhile, just that it helps to be familiar with the band's sound before checking them out. I particularly recommend Holiday, which is one of my favorites — but which is so fuzzy at points that I thought my speakers were broken when I first heard it. It's also worth checking out side projects the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and the Gothic Archies, which released a collection of songs to accompany Lemony Snicket books.


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