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Magnetic Fields
Quickies Liam Inscoe-Jones , July 16th, 2020 07:57

Brevity proves to be the soul of wit for the Magnetic Fields on new album Quickies, finds Liam Inscoe-Jones

Brevity in music is underrated. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and The Ramones’ debut run less than twenty-nine minutes each; The Descendent’s Milo Goes To College is just twenty-three. Yet forever disparaged is the short song. They’re intros, interludes, annoying spoken word detours. They’re skippable, in short. But Stephen Merritt’s The Magnetic Fields finally gives them their moment in the sun on Quickies, where each of its twenty-eight songs run barely two minutes in length.

Merritt is a fan of small things. In 2014 he published a book containing poems for each of the 101 two-letter words in the Scrabble dictionary. Not only that, in a remarkable commitment to the cause, he himself is only five foot three.

The Magnetic Fields have the dubious accolade that their most iconic album is one with a headline-grabbing gimmick. Indeed 1999’s 69 Love Songs defined them as The Gimmick Band. Three ‘no synth’ albums followed and, in 2017, came the autobiographic epic 50 Song Memoir. Luckily Merritt is good at it and, notably, 2012’s Love At The Bottom of The Sea (whose rather trite ‘gimmick’ was that it doesn’t have one) was their most aimless to date.

Like a lot of rarely explored ideas, there’s often a reason for their scarcity, and I fear brevity will do Merrit’s songwriting a disservice. These are ornate and complete songs, but they pass by so quickly they will likely not receive the attention they would have done with a third verse. Yes, there are miss-fires, like the dated your-uncle-on-Facebook humour of Beatles-spoof “The Biggest Tits In History” and “Bathroom Quickie”. But the best songs here depict characters so nuanced it would take longer than the length of the song to describe them.

’When She Plays The Toy Piano’ is a sad ode to a doomed amateur musician in an unartistic household: “when she plays that toy piano, when she makes her so-called art / she defiles her papas tombstone / she is breaking mamas heart” Merritt sings, surrounded by George Martin strings. ‘The Day The Politicians Died’ is grimly funny, Merritt lending his lovesick lilt to fantasise aloud how “billions laughed and no-one cried / the day the politicians died”. ‘Kraftwerk In A Blackout’ is an evocative ode to nighttime dancing which could have been a hit for REM in another universe, and ‘Evil Rhythm’ – the tale of an erotic dancer – somehow makes it’s chorus legitimately sultry despite most of the tune being played on a xylophone.

Many of the songs are this good, and the album rewards as time passes. Initially tracks change relentlessly and the notion of fifteen more feels like a chore, but by Quickies’ end you’ve encountered so many characters and so many songwriting modes that this slight album feels like an entire populated universe. The Magnetic Fields have pulled off their old trick of reminding you that there can be something to a gimmick after all.