Holiday marks the debut of The Magnetic Fieldsnot the debut of the band (that would be 1990s Distant Plastic Trees) but the debut of the band most people think of when they hear The Magnetic Fields. By this, I am of course referencing that 1994’s Holiday (album four in the bands catalog) is the first to feature Stephin Merritt exclusively on vocals.
Merritt has always been the principle mover and shaker behind The Magnetic Fields. While he wrote most of the songs, the majority of vocal duties rested with the wonderfully twee-pitched Susan Anway. As Holiday went into production, Anway left the band to move to Arizona. Rather than search to find a new vocalist, Merritt simply did what made the most sense: step up and sing the songs that he himself had been writing. However, it may be interesting to note that an alternate version of the album closer Take Ecstasy With Me was released on Oh, Merge: A Merge Records 10 Year Anniversary Compilation and featured Susan Anway on vocals.
Merritts voice is perfectly suited for his lyrics, even more so than Anways, especially on ballad-like material such as Sad Little Moon. The not-quite-nasal, lovelorn strain in his bass baritone voice drips with emotive intensity and compliments the actual words in such a way you almost empathize with the songs protagonistmost often Merritt himself, regardless if you can actually relate to his tales.
Holiday begins like most other Magnetic Fields albums, with a tender blend of acoustic and synth instrumentation fused via a lo-fi approach. The opening 20 seconds is an oddly eccentric looping of tones one wishes would actually develop only to have it end too soon. Following a short break of silence in the program, the first full track, Desert Island, pops out of the speaker. The fuzzy reverb on Desert Island may cause you to try and shake the sleep offuntil you realize it isnt you.
Merritts songwriting has more often been based around more non-traditional rock instruments such as cello, Marxophone, ukulele, and, on Deep Sea Diving Suit, what may be a Jews harp. The upbeat, quirky, plucking sound associated with the instrument sails along as if it was bed music to the song itself. And, of course, it wouldnt be a Magnetic Fields album without synthesizers (not counting the no synth trilogy of course). The synth riff accompanying the titular choral phrase on My Secret Place embeds itself in your brain almost as infectiously as the bands earlier hit 100,000 Fireflies.
Many of Merritts songs are just snapshots of moments in time with no more story to them than the tales themselves, an example being the opening to The Flowers She Sent and the Flowers She Said She Sent: “I saw you standing in the airport/with your chihuahua in your hand/crying on the moving sidewalk/on your way to Disneyland.” Other times, like in Take Ecstasy With Me, the words are poetically heavier: You used to slide down the carpeted stairs/Or down the banister/You stuttered like a kaleidoscope/’cause you knew too many words
Lyrically, all of Merritts songs are short, managing to deliver his sentiment in just a couple of stanzas, if that. Despite the songs lyrical brevity, the music and emotive sentiment associated with his tunes amplify and expand the message to become far greater than the sum of their parts. Holiday marked the beginning of a new phase for The Magnetic Fields, where Merritt took the reins full-on and, in doing so, helped to create one of the most unique yet recognizable voices and bands in 90’s indie pop/rock.