Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: The Magnetic Fields – Holiday

on August 13, 2011, 10:00am

Holiday marks the debut of The Magnetic Fields–not the debut of the band (that would be 1990’s 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 band’s 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.

Merritt’s voice is perfectly suited for his lyrics, even more so than Anway’s, 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 song’s protagonist–most 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 off–until you realize it isn’t you.

Merritt’s 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 Jew’s 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 wouldn’t 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 band’s earlier hit “100,000 Fireflies”.

Many of Merritt’s 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 Merritt’s 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.

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