The challenge of confining oneself to choose a single album that is the “best” from one’s collection is an insane project. For most of us, mood swings, relationships, friends, life events, and other myriad factors combine to render to our tastes what the “best” is — the “best” must be contextualized within a specific moment in one’s life, the “best” album like Polaroid shot of how one musically sees oneself in a given moment. But the common bond between factors like mood swings, life events, etc. is the necessity for change, dynamism, and growth. This is why, with much hair-pulling angst, I’d have to say that the best album I am plugging into my ears these days is The Charm of the Highway Strip by Stephin Merritt’s band the Magnetic Fields.
There is nothing like the memory of a roadtrip (which can often be more palatable than the real thing since memory can mysteriously revise itself as it peers backwards), the essence of which Merritt captures on this The Charm of the Highway Strip. The album is reminiscent of driving all night, stopping by 7-11 for a large Mountain Dew, and later taking a piss behind a barn beneath a sparkling canopy of stars in the middle of nowhere. This is a brilliant album to hear while on the road, and indulges those of us who love to drive in an ethereal experience of lush sounds tailored to invoke nostalgia. But it is not just the nostalgic overtones, romanticism of the road, or Kerouacian sensibility that makes this album so great. It features an eclectic collage of sounds that are refreshing and daring as they emanate a Twilight Zone feel.
“After all those days / On godforsaken highways / The roads don’t love you and they still won’t pretend to” croons Merritt on “Long Vermont Road”. A gem on the album, the lyrics sweep listeners from the Mesa Verde located in a passenger’s eyes to the urban sprawl of Kansas City straddling the Missouri/Kansas state line. The melancholic yet beautiful realization that the road can be a heartlessly fleeting landscape is also echoed on “When the Open Road is Closing In”, which describes the dizzying effect of “time — measured in dotted, yellow lines” converging on the asphalt ahead. “Born on a Train” recalls of the early sixties sounds and percussion used by the Ronettes (“Be My Baby”) and the Crystals (“Then He Kissed Me”), and erupts into a grandiose explosion of musical movements that seem to travel in different directions.
These songs allow one to sense the homage Merritt pays to music veteran Phil Spector, who produced work by a number of hallowed sixties musical acts. Contrasted against songs that overtly reverberate sixties percussion styles are numbers like “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song”, which combines the hysterical playfulness of Ween with the gentle yet powerful lyrics and vocals of Peter Murphy. Also a twangy little cowboy jingle, “Fear of Trains” gives one the feeling that President Bush’s favorite rodeo venue is down the block (albeit that his is not something poised to make listeners nostalgic). Other highlights include “Sunset City”, “Crowd of Drifters”, and “Lonely Highway”, which opens the record with the lyrics: “I am never going back to Jackson”.
Since music aficionados excavate and apprehend different memories at different moments for varying reasons, some of us will definitely bond with the lovely elegance that makes The Charm of the Highway Strip such an amazing and original album. But whether one listens to the album to self-induce nostalgia or simply to sample the brilliant instrumentation of Stephin Merritt (whose other bands include the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes), there is no doubt that the sounds and themes the album offers will leave listeners feeling pleasantly refreshed. After all, isn’t that what taking a piss on the side of the road under the stars is usually like?