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The Magnetic Fields (named after the André Breton/Philippe Soupault novel Les Champs Magnétiques) are an American band founded and led by Stephin Merritt. Merritt is the group's primary songwriter, producer, and vocalist, as well as frequent multi-instrumentalist. The Magnetic Fields is essentially a vehicle for Merritt's songwriting, as are various side-projects including The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and The Gothic Archies. Merritt's recognizable lyrics are often about love and with atypical or neutral gender roles, and are by turns ironic, tongue-in-cheek, bitter, and humorous.
The band released their debut single "100,000 Fireflies" in 1991. The single was typical of the band's earlier career, characterized by synthesized instrumentation by Merritt, with lead vocals provided by Susan Anway (and then by Stephin Merritt himself from The House of Tomorrow (EP) onwards). A more traditional band later materialized; it is now composed of Merritt, Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, and John Woo, with occasional guest vocals by Shirley Simms. The band's best-known work is the 1999 three-volume concept album 69 Love Songs. It was followed in the succeeding years by a "no-synth" trilogy: i (2004), Distortion (2008), and Realism (2010). The band's most recent album, 50 Song Memoir, was released in March 2017.
The band began as Merritt's studio project under the name Buffalo Rome. With the help of friend Claudia Gonson, who had played in Merritt's band The Zinnias during high school, a live band was assembled in Boston, where Merritt and Gonson lived, to play Merritt's compositions. The band's first live performance was at T.T. the Bear's Place in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1991 where they played to a sparse audience that was expecting to see the Galaxie 500 spin-off, Magnetophone.
The 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs showcased Merritt's songwriting abilities and the group's musicianship, demonstrated by the use of such varied instruments as the ukulele, banjo, accordion, cello, mandolin, flute, xylophone, and the Marxophone, in addition to their usual setting of synthesizers, guitars, and effects. The album features vocalists Shirley Simms, Dudley Klute, L.D. Beghtol, and Gonson, each of whom sings lead on six songs as well as various backing vocals, plus Daniel Handler (who has written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) on accordion, and longtime collaborator Christopher Ewen (of Future Bible Heroes) as guest arranger/synthesist. Violinist Ida Pearle makes a brief cameo on "Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side".
The band released its tenth full-length album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, on March 6, 2012 to critical acclaim. This album, sometimes compared to 69 Love Songs, brought back the use of a synthesizer. Merritt told fans on his website, "I was very happy to be using synthesizers in ways that I had not done before. Most of the synthesizers on the record didn't exist when we were last using synthesizers." The song "Andrew in Drag" has garnered much attention, receiving play from entities such as CBS News and NPR's All Songs Considered. In 2012, the Magnetic Fields celebrated its new album by launching a North American and European tour. It began on March 6, the release date of Love at the Bottom of the Sea, and continued for two months.
In 2016 it was announced that the band's eleventh studio album, 50 Song Memoir would contain fifty songs, akin to the 69 Love Songs concept, one to commemorate each year since Stephin Merritt was born. It was released in March 2017.
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