Get Lost by The Magnetic Fields was the only album I gave double six to in Hot Press that the editors allowed to stay with full marks. Probably because I’d been there a few years at that point and maybe because I obviously liked the record a lot. I still do. I mean, when I wrote at the end that after forty-eight hours with the album I knew I’d still be listening to it years later, well, I wasn’t wrong. Merritt and the Magnets hadn’t had too much success at the time although they had some brilliant albums like Charm of the Highway Strip, Holiday, The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees, as well as Wasps’ Nests by The 6ths. It was the Magnets album after this one, 69 Love Songs, that changed everything for Stephin, and it was such a delight to see him and his colleagues, who still perform with him, being so widely lauded. He seems … like he got happy. I didn’t predict that in this piece and I’m glad I was wrong about that. This is an album review I just found for the first time in a good while, in a March 1996 Hot Press with Nick Cave on the cover. The issue also had a Frank Black interview by my esteemed colleague and great friend Nick Kelly. The Magnets and Nick came together later at the wedding ceremony that Sharon and I had 12.5 years later, 15 years ago, in September 2008. Nick read Brian Doyle’s essay Yes and my uncle Michael and cousin Damian opened the ceremony by playing and singing, as I asked them to, ‘With Whom To Dance’, which was the opening track on the Get Lost I owned. In the review you’ll note I quoted the line of this song that goes “I’ve no hope of falling in love” — which was then perhaps not completely appropriate. Michael didn’t tell me he was going to do anything about this but the words he brought while Sharon and I and everyone listened intently were “I’ve hopelessly fallen in love”. I had done so indeed, still have, and I’ll always be grateful for this deft alteration of one of my favourite songs.
THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: “Get Lost” (Setanta)
THIS IS the blackest bubblegum there’ll ever be.
It’s not that there’s any shortage of competition for the title — I think it’s been accepted, at long last, by even the most cloth-eared, filthy-flannel-clad rockist redneck that the production-line Pop bequeathed by Lamont and Dozier, Bacharach, Spector, ABBA and the better boy bands is far more than just an exhilarating but cynical exercise in form, wild young love as cashcrop … the tales of lust, longing, life, death, magic and loss that these Gods among men hid behind sweeping orchestral swells and plastic smiles are all too real, and they could draw tears from a dead man.
New York City’s Stephin Merritt is The Magnetic Fields, and he worships all the above too, but he shouldn’t; he is their equal, at least. He lives reluctantly, observes keenly, writes words with grace, wit and crushing pathos, picks with uncanny precision chord changes that manipulate your moods marionette-like, and from every event and emotion fashions an (almost invariably) unbelievable bleak sonic sculpture that is utterly perfect in every respect. EVERY respect.
He does overtly what Spector did covertly — it’s the Nineties, so there’s no need for subterfuge lyric-wise. It’s OK to cry, and boy does Merritt know it: at times, he leaves Emily Dickinson looking like a Girlie Show presenter. “Moons in June,” goes the heartwarming first half of the first line of the first song, ‘With Whom To Dance’, a crooner: “I’ve given up on that stuff”, goes the second half, and the litany of betrayals and years and years of sideburn-greying experiencing experience that go into this line alone make your stomach turn. “I’ve no hope of falling in love,” he goes on, and it’s been said before, but it’s rarely been meant before. Stephin Merritt means it — nobody could be this good a liar.
Thankfully, he can dish it out too. He will survive. ‘When You’re Old and Lonely’, a poison-pen letter to a traitorous ex, is as cruel a few minutes of music as I’ve heard since prime vindictive Dylan. What starts as an outlandishly funny apparent reconciliation attempt — “When you’re old and lonely you will wish you’d married me / I could build a fire for you and bring you cakes and tea”, sung more gravely than a mid-crisis Michael Buerk — and blossoms, beautifully, somehow, into “When your golden loneliness is heavier than stone / You can call me up up and say ‘My God I’m all alone / All alone’.” All pretence at any warmth is gone, the need to love and be loved has vanished and been replaced by simple, childish (but oddly calculated) spite. It’s quietly chilling. It’s unwisely honest and it’s pure brilliance. Genius, really.
So, a masterpiece, then. What we call a minor masterpiece, I suppose: it won’t change the world, you see, because it’s not loud enough, and because though it’s not a dance record it only has (save us!) synths on it, but it is a collection of thirteen of the finest songs imaginable.
And it’s rare to be so sure so soon, but having owned Get Lost for all of forty-eight hours I can already fearlessly promise you this … when in three years, five years, eighty years, whenever, your baby’s done left you, when you want, yet again, the one you just can’t have, when you’re old and lonely and Oasis’ bland Tory inanities just can’t hack it, The Magnetic Fields will be around. Get Lost will be there, a tearstained, Southern Comfort-soaked friend indeed, ready and able to articulate, better than anyone, all your miserable fears, spent dreams, and — despite yourself and itself — not-quite-forlorn-yet hopes. There will be no better records than this, ever.
Get Lost? Get it.