Take Ecstasy With Me
The magic of Stephin Merritt and Magnetic Fields

If I dredge deep enough in my memory, I come up with a scene in the front room of my parents first house. There is a black and white PYE TV set, and a bright red Dansette style Marconi record player. The Marconiphone has a long centre spindle that supports numerous discs which crash down in turn to be played. The sounds that escape the tiny speaker are brittle - the sounds of early rock'n'roll and '50s crooners. It's several more years, and new house, until I start to recognise these tunes, start to recognise something of the sonic qualities. And the sonic quality I admire most, the one that stays with me, is the quality of simplicity.

Simplicity is, on the face of it, remarkably easy to achieve, but looks can be deceptive, and doing Simple well is the hardest thing of all. Too many artists fail to realise that what is left out is as important as what is put in, that the space around elements is vital, and is those early rock'n'roll sides captured that vitality through technology failure rather than intent, then so be it: sometimes the limitations of our tools are the aid our imaginations need to stay the right side of over-development, makes us stop before we spoil it all.

The temptation in the contemporary technological age is to do it all because we can. To use all the elements, all the possibilities, simply because they are there. It's evident in much electronic music, as clear in the drum'n'bass studio immersion as anywhere; the endless tinkering with sound by the likes of Ed Rush, Optical and Rupert Parkes can be applauded, but there comes a time when the impulse gets lost and the space gets filled.

Stephin Merritt does not work on drum'n'bass, but he does make modern electronic music of the highest order. He also understands the importance of space and the depth of simplicity, off-setting this with a lyrical magic that few writers can begin to approach. Long term fans are currently salivating at the prospect of a proposed 69 (that's sixty nine!) song collection by his Magnetic Fields incarnation later in '99, but for new and many medium term fans, the recent reissue of two older Magnetic Fields titles has provided opportunity to indulge the obsessions further.

The first of the reissues is an EP titled 'The House of Tomorrow'. Originally released in 1992, the EP was the first Magnetic Fields record which showed Stephins individual vocal prowess, replacing as he did Susan Anway, who sang on the first two Magnetic Fields albums, the magical 'Wayward Bus' and 'Distant Plastic Trees'. It wasn't only the vocals that changed for this EP either, as the entire mood cast by the record is darker than previously, with the sound being akin to a Suicidal Joy Division meeting the early Human League at a party where the record deck is playing an endless stream of Bobbie Gentry songs. It's a resolutely Pop record too, with all the songs clocking in at around two and a half minutes, and from the opening of 'Young and Insane' to the close of the 'Either You Don't Love Me Or I Don't Love You' with it's unanswered phone tone rhythm, there is the crescendo of classic Pop themes: love, loss, distance, remembrance, the politics of adolescent abandon and the kaleidoscope of surrealist daydreaming. Deep, dark, echoing chambers of sound and inner vision, 'The House of Tomorrow' is the noise of eroded hopes and dreams made concrete.

'Holiday', originally released in 1993, was the third album by Magnetic Fields, and again featured Stephin singing his own compositions with what has become a trademark sound that mixes equal parts Ian Curtis, Bowie, Johnny Cash and Lawrence whilst still sounding like no-one else on earth. Except that there's ghosts weaving through the record, like they do through all the most magical Pop moments, making suggestions and casting seductive glances. 'Holiday' is lighter than 'The House of Tomorrow' with a sound and a feeling all suffused with liquefied golden '50s and '60s Americana sunlight, faded glamour, tarnished lost moments by railroad tracks and lost highways… clichés lined up, lightly tinged with regret and cinematic and televisual ennui. There's 'Deep Sea Diving Suit' with it's Byrdsian riffs recreated on tinny '80s sounding synths and it's homage to Felt's 'Bitter End'. There's the soiled Arcadian beauty of 'The Flowers She Sent and The Flowers She Said She Sent' with an undersea envelope of noise woven with the colour of dancing starfish. There's the orchestrated emptiness of 'Sad Little Moon', which is pure Veronica Lake in dreams of misted evenings, and there's the runaway Pop of 'All You Ever Do Is Walk Away', carousing on a strange rhythmic blip on it's way to syncopated release on the dance floors of underground hipsters home-movies. Finally, there's the spectre/Spector like shift of 'Take Ecstasy With Me', an estranged paean to lost innocence and the often ignored pain that underlies such backward glances, as always with Merritt songs, filled with creative visual reference and sharp social comment, told as sadly and plainly as can be.

In the depths of my dredged memory, I dig out the old Marconiphone record player and on it's spindle stack records of space and beautiful simplicity. At the top are the records of Stephin Merritt.

© Alistair Fitchett 1999.