Photo by Alterna2 (CC 2.0)
American Rock had an independent explosion in the 1990s. Whilst Grunge took most of the plaudits, the independent movement had also exploded by this point, with 80’s indie stalwarts such as R.E.M and Sonic Youth, to drastically varying degrees, experiencing mainstream attention. Also present were new stars from Pavement to Elliot Smith. Among these artists were The Magnetic Fields. Known best for their 1999 behemoth “69 Songs”, the band gave the lugubrious atmosphere of much of US indie an electronic sheen. Largely the project of Stephen Merritt, the early albums were dominated by his unique take on synthpop and vocalist Susan Anway’s sorrowful lyrics of lost love and desolation.
“Distant Plastic Trees” and “The Wayward Bus” both manage to be both ethereal and strangely mechanical. Synths clatter off one another, yet are submerged under a slightly lo-fi layer of melancholy. As Anway left the band, “The Charm of The Highway Strip” and “Holiday” saw Merritt himself take up vocals. His forlorn vocal style and the devastating yet sardonic lyrics are almost Morrissey-esque, and the former’s country-inflected songs particularly radiate a unique misery. By 1995, the band had expanded and found a sound that introduced a less overpowering atmosphere to the band’s music. The result was “Get Lost”.
Whilst the theme of this album is the familiar subject of romantic heartbreak, many of the tracks wear their melancholy far more subtly. The opener ‘Famous’ is a perfect example of this whilst driving guitar chords and a far faster tempo than most Magnetic Fields before it suggests a more upbeat sound, there is a real resignation in Merritt’s exclamation that “Baby, you could be famous/If you could just get out of this town”. Another example of this subversion is in the almost absurdly simple lyrical repetition of “Love Is Lighter Than Air” that hides the regret-ridden lyrics. Otherwise songs like “The Desperate Things You Make Me Do” and “The Village in the Morning” continue on a familiar track to previous Magnetic Fields records. There is also even time for the banjo-heavy “With Whom to Dance?” and the acoustic “When You’re Old and Lonely”. The album is impressive for how it combines more defined hooks and melodies with the tragic lo-fi haze that makes the early records so affecting. Whilst “Get Lost” wasn’t the breakthrough for the band that the critically acclaimed “69 Songs” was, it serves as a more cohesive and immediate record than anything they put out before, and certainly the huge album that followed. Its striking beauty and eclectic sound places it as one of the most impressive records from the 90’s indie scene.