The Magnetic Fields Offer a Masterclass in Pop Composition

The Magnetic Fields’ new album Quickies features twenty-eight tracks, the longest tune in the sequence lasting all of two minutes and thirty-three seconds. Many of the songs enroll a listener from the first note or phrase, offering a chorus that cycles in a listener’s head for the rest of the day. Or perhaps the rest of the week.

“The Day the Politicians Died” is a wistfully satiric gem reminiscent of Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, carried by Claudia Gonson’s crystalline vocal. Merritt offers his drolly baritone on the reflective “Castle Down a Dirt Road.” “My Stupid Boyfriend,” a duet between Merritt and Shirley Simms, might’ve been plucked from a Broadway musical, replete with comedic but precise lyrics and a timeless melody.

When listening to The Beatles’ early songs, I’m frequently struck by how much is accomplished in such a short amount of time, usually under/well under three minutes. I often had the same impression while listening to Quickies. “I’ve Got a Date with Jesus” is a minimally textural prize, Simms’s voice reminiscent of a wistful Trish Keenan or Mary Therese Hansen. “(I Want to Join A) Biker Gang” spotlights Merritt embracing his inner Joey Ramone, a wafting back-up vocal adding refined textures. “The Price You Pay” could’ve been a Dusty Springfield tune, replete with a spacey/60s-esque vocal and jangly instrumentation. “Evil Rhythm” is a mock-bluesy tune that reminds me of an experimental PJ Harvey.

A few tracks on Quickies occur as truncated or incomplete; however, even pieces that might’ve benefited from additional development include melodic fragments that stand out, transitions from verse to chorus that, while seemingly simple, operate as how-to manifestos. On the other hand, at least half of Quickies showcases impeccable songwriting, some of the more artfully crafted and integrated hooks, segues, and gestalts in contemporary popular music.

I’ve found myself returning to Quickies again and again – along with 1999’s 69 Love Songs and 2017’s 50 Song Memoir – skipping a few tracks, playing many repeatedly, ten, fifteen times. This project makes pop composition look easy when it’s anything but ….



(Featured image: front cover of Quickies)

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