Feature Image by Nina Corcoran
Cover Girl is a bi-monthly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. As musicians throw around genres, tempos, styles, and intent, Nina Corcoran breaks down what makes them stand out. This week’s column looks at The Shins’ summery cover of a Magnetic Fields classic.
Forget about cuffing season. Summer is where romantic flings are meant to thrive. When the weather’s warm enough to rid the need for coats and the outdoors open themselves up for endless exploration, it’s the perfect time for smitten winks and budding relationships. Why else would there be so many songs about the two?
Leave it to Stephin Merritt to pen one of the best songs about that particular enchantment. The Magnetic Fields frontman is full of quirks that are, depending on what you fall for, easy to find charm in (All-brown outfits! The Irish cap! A pension for adventitious, order-based tracklists!). His lyrics, on the other hand, waste little time giving listeners something to pocket, the type of poetry you connect with instantly and can’t bear to part with. The Boston-based group have been known for their sometimes dense, always witty wordplay ever since they formed in 1989, opting for simplistic folk pop that grows darker and deeper than its format would seem to allow. In a field dominated by gender-neutral lyrics and whimsical storylines, picking a single love song to cherish by The Magnetic Fields is tougher than it seems.
Of course, the fact that “Strange Powers” exists makes that task a bit easier. The highlight of 1994’s Holiday initially made its rounds between music lovers in a quiet fashion, but upon the album’s reissue on Merge in 1995, it wiggled its way into hundreds of new ears. Merritt sings about the allure of a crush and the magnetism it has over the protagonist. Naturally, he pairs a charming setting (“On the Ferris wheel/ Looking out on Coney Island”) with contrasting comparisons (“Under more stars than/ There are prostitutes in Thailand”), pulling a laugh out of an otherwise sweet moment. But he carries on, detailing lips blue from cotton candy and astronomical kisses in a way that recalls preteen romance.
The instrumentation further builds that fuzzy, ethereal feeling of love. Synths plod along like waves of summer heat, a woodblock clucks in the background like skipping sneakers, and — in a rare moment in The Magnetic Fields’ discography — the guitar strings are pulled, warping notes instead of aiming for a clean and clear delivery. Everything swirls together into a gushy pool. Once Merritt’s chorus (“And I can’t sleep/ ‘Cause you got strange powers/ You’re in my dreams/ Strange powers”) echoes over itself, the illusion of a love-sick dream continues. This isn’t a reflection. It’s a decision to give in, to hand over control to the good-humored beginnings of falling in love.
Two years after “Strange Powers” took hold, The Shins were born. James Mercer and his band took several years to find their footing, working through a few 7-inch releases before officially dropping their debut full-length, Oh, Inverted World, in 2001. Several years later came Chutes Too Narrow, a young Natalie Portman, and a song that would change every indie kid’s life whether they wanted it to or not. The Shins found their voice and the music world was charmed.
In the mid-2000s, the group sat down to pay tribute to one of the bands that influenced their own simplistic chord structure: The Magnetic Fields. “Strange Powers” took on a new form when The Shins decided to cover it, but what they did shone a new light on the song, transforming a Nyquil-laced dream into a wide-eyed revelation and leading Merritt’s words out of the bedroom and into a cinematic field.
Like a mixture of Jens Lekman’s vocal delivery and George Harrison’s guitar work, The Shins’ cover of “Strange Powers” layers on the warmth with bright, acoustic chords and quick, finger-picked descents. They strip down the original, keeping it airy and basic while maintaining a crucial degree of levity. The dark synth tones and clicking percussion vanish. Instead, Merritt’s lyrics come to the forefront, jumping up and down to Mercer’s delivery. In a way, it sounds like a love song for toddlers instead of one for teenagers. Maybe that’s what’s needed.
Merritt’s voice obviously can’t be mimicked, so The Shins simply accept that and run head-on into the sunshine. In doing so, they turn “Strange Powers” into a love song running on the fuel of giddy fascination and prayers for more hours in a day. Coming at a time when they were at the peak of their folk pop sound, it falls in line with their persona, acting as both a tribute and an extension of their own discography, though it never saw a proper release on any EP or split.
Fellow Merge act Telekinesis also covered “Strange Powers” in 2014, sticking with a traditional synth-heavy base. In a video discussing its creation, frontman Michael Benjamin Lerner raises a point that clearly holds true for The Shins, as well. “The only reason I cover a song is because I’m totally in love with that song,” he says, pausing to find the right words. “It’s interesting to deconstruct your favorite song.” Sure enough, The Shins love The Magnetic Fields, as later covers like “Andrew in Drag” indicate, but their first ode to the weird pop act is one that stands tall almost a decade later — and still finds its most memorable stride when heard in the midst of summer.