Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review of The Magnetic Fields' "Distant Plastic Trees"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik music website:

Review Summary: "Why do we keep shrieking/When we mean soft things?/We should be whispering all the time." -- from "100,000 Fireflies" by Stephin Merritt

In the beginning, there was no Magnetic Fields. Not really, anyway. There was just Stephin Merritt, a laconic, somewhat depressed musician/songwriter in his mid-twenties. In 1991, he put together his first album under the Magnetic Fields name, Distant Plastic Trees. He played all of the music himself, and wrote nine of the ten tracks on the LP (the only exception being "Babies Falling", a cover of a song by The Wild Stares). He entrusted the vocals, however, to a young woman with a light-but-pleasant soprano voice named Susan Anway. The album went largely unnoticed at first, and probably would have stayed that way. Except ... well, we'll get back to that.

Anyway, I rated this album at 3.5 stars, which by Sputnik Music standards equates to "great", and the site as a whole seems to agree (the aggregate Sputnik rating currently sits at 3.4). "Great" might make you think Distant Plastic Trees is an album of consistent high quality, but you'd be wrong. What you have instead is a 10-track LP with a few pretty good songs, a few average ones, and two or three that are fairly lousy. Oh yeah, and a couple of great ones that pull the whole album to a different level.

The music throughout consists largely of synthesizers and keyboards, sometimes with tinkling bell-like sounds, static and other white noise, swooshing air and humming generators, and various other sound effects. Anway's vocals are pretty enough. They're maybe a little thin, but by and large, they work with this material.

The tracks that don't work (such as "Kings" and "Falling Babies") tend to be a little formless and experimental, and I chalk them up to the young Merritt relying on trial and error as he tries to find his way as a musician and a songwriter. A few others, like "Living in an Abandoned Firehouse With You" and "Josephine" are inoffensive, but a little boring.

More interesting is "Tar Heel Boy". It has a country/Appalachian vibe to it, to the point where Anway even yodels on the chorus, but the instrumentation sounds something like a banjo-inspired music box. "Smoke Signals" and "You Love to Fail" are also winners. The first features some lovely swirling piano, while the second is one of Merritt's classic not-love songs: "And I want to take you out/But you always refuse/'Cause you only play the games/That you know you can lose/You love to fail, that's all you love".

The 600-lb. gorilla on the album, however, is a little ditty called "100,000 Fireflies". This song began with some limited airplay on alternative rock and college stations. Gradually it became something of an underground classic, to the point where various critics have named it one of the Top 10 indie songs of the nineties. It starts off sounding like an inverse and more ethereal version of Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town", until Anway jumps in with one of Merritt's best-ever opening lines: "I've got a mandolin/I play it all night long/It makes me want to kill myself". From that point on, the song manages to be funny, touching and sad in equal measures, as the singer pleads for her lover to give their relationship another shot: "You won't be happy with me/But give me one more chance/You won't be happy anyway." For a certain type of twee teen/young adult, this song was the musical totem of their generation, beloved in much the same way as films such as Donnie Darko and Napolean Dynamite were embraced by their respective admirers in the early 2000s.

Although "100,000 Fireflies" is the song Distant Plastic Trees is most noted for, one other track, "Falling in Love With the Wolf Boy", is almost as brilliant. This one features whirling, carnival-like synthesizers that seem to fall in and out of the sync with Anway's vocal part, and includes lyrics that are both biting and highly amusing. The song is a description of/fantasy about a person of the female persuasion with whom Mr. Merritt is something less than pleased (I'm going to take a wild guess that it's Ayn Rand, but I could be totally off-base): "With a face like an African mask/And the strength of ten men when she's wrong/She's in charge of the world at large/And her novels are all very long". Where someone of a more violent nature might wish for physical harm to befall the object of their derision, however, Merritt has a gentler but stranger plan: "Take her down to the woods where the wolfboy lives/So the villagers say/And the three of you evaporate into the night/And you both fall in love with him." A unique solution to an interpersonal problem if ever there was one.

"100,000 Fireflies" probably didn't make Merritt a ton of money. But it did help to give Distant Plastic Trees and The Magnetic Fields enough of a reputation to build a cult following in indie music circles to carry the band through the nineties until the release of their most successful album, 1999's opus 69 Love Songs. Listeners who first jumped on The Magnetic Fields' train on or after that point would probably find the band's original sound, with its airy female vocals and tinker-toy synthesizer sounds, jarring. But while this first Magnetic Fields album is certainly uneven and immature compared to an album like 69 Love Songs, the hits on Distant Plastic Trees still outweigh the misses by far.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars