Diving for a Pearl You’ll Never Find: Susan Anway and The Magnetic Fields

The singer Susan Anway died in early September. She had sung with a number of bands since the 1980s, including The Magnetic Fields, who announced her passing on September 9th.

Anway sang lead vocals on The Magnetic Fields’ first two records, The Wayward Bus & Distant Plastic Trees. “Susan Anway sings Stephin Merritt songs” went the credits on the sleeve; it was just the pair of them in the band back then. “She was a lovely person and will be missed by all of us”, wrote The Magnets last week on social media, alongside a video of the Wayward Bus song ‘Dancing In Your Eyes’: “When we walk hand in hand in the rain / When we’re young and in love once again / We will dance in the autumn with the leaves in our hair / When I look, I’ll be dancing in your eyes“.

I remember, or I think I remember, Merritt saying in the 90s that he asked Susan Anway to be The Magnetic Fields’ singer because her voice did not have too much personality. I understood that he meant that a voice with more personality, even his own lugubrious baritone, might distract from the song. Anway’s clear, composed voice read the melody line and delivered the words: job done, no distractions. And I can not swear that Merritt said this and if he did so he may have been joking. But the thought of that quote has left me thinking about Susan Anway’s contribution to those records.

In those days Merritt’s songs were too much. His arrangements were kitchen-sink synth-pop Spector, ornate and wired and sweepingly melodramatic. His lyrics scaled scarcely credible heights of emotional enormity. ‘100,000 Fireflies’ opens: “I have a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself“. (Excuse me?) In ‘Summer Lies’, Anway sings: “All the sweetest things you said and I believed were summer lies / Hanging in the willow trees like the dead were summer lies / I’ll never fall in love again“. It wasn’t enough for the story in an early Magnetic Fields song to be sad, it had to be ‘The Saddest Story Ever Told’: “Once upon a time we fell in love or at least that’s what you said / You say I can find someone else but I just wish I was dead… And then we’ll quietly grow old / The saddest story ever told.”

Susan Anway’s job here was to ground these songs; to steady them in such a way that they hit home. Merritt’s huge arrangements veered close enough to Spector that it could have been emotionally distancing – was this a PhD in pastiche or a heartfelt set of songs? Even Merritt’s depictions of extreme woe could have been alienatingly arch, more than the songs could withstand, but Susan Anway sang his aching words so earnestly, so free from any taint of irony, that every line landed.

As I’ve been thinking about Susan Anway this week I’ve been thinking about a poem by Ada Limon called Instructions On Not Giving Up. The poem (from poets.org) is as follows:

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

And I don’t want to over-explain but I’ve been thinking a lot since Susan Anway died about that final couple of lines. About the fuchsia funnels and candy-colored blossoms of those early Magnetic Fields songs. (The Wayward Bus even has a song called ‘Candy’: “Candy, it’s been really nice, but I’ve got to go / Cos I can’t be the part of your life you don’t wanna know“). Those Wayward Bus songs glistened and shone and oscillated wildly and that was all great; and Susan Anway sang in counterpoint, caring and experienced, ready for anything, like that leaf unfurling.

I think about how Merritt specialised in longing and Anway voiced that longing and made it liveable with. Merritt wrote about “diving for a girl you’ll never find“, which I’ve always heard as “diving for a pearl you’ll never find“, and to be honest I prefer my version. Susan Anway’s voice took the longing and loss in that line and accepted it; relished it. Diving for a pearl you’ll never find: that’s what life is, right? Who ever finds the pearl? What would you even do with it if you found it? I’ll take that, said Susan Anway. This may be the saddest story ever told, she sang, but it’s all we have, and I’ll take it all.