Stephin Merritt is, above all, a unique and adventurous songsmith. He entertains in a variety of ways, including clever lyric wordplay like “I gave you all the best years of my life / And half the worst / I pine and wane, pal and wan” (“Summer Lies”) or having a female lead singer sing songs from a male viewpoint (“Candy”, “Josephine”), or referencing older musical styles such as ’60s Girl Group and Baroque Pop and making them sound contemporary, or releasing a three volume genre-jumping song collection called 69 Love Songs, not about love, but about love songs themselves. He’s also so prolific that he’s recorded under four different band names, as well as his own name.
The Magnetic Fields, though, is his main gig and he began his career more than 25 years ago with a pair of sharp, wide-ranging, and playful releases issued under that name at the height of grunge. Distant Plastic Trees (1991) and The Wayward Bus (1992) were almost in direct opposition to that genre, but to a certain breed of listener, these two albums were (and remain) bright strokes on the popular music canvas. Paired as one release since 1994, Merge has reissued them for the first time on vinyl. They’ve been remastered, and the humorous watercolor cover art by Wendy Smith benefits greatly from the larger 12-inch format. In one, a couple sits on a bench in a pastoral landscape. Yet, as the title tells us, the distant trees are plastic, this idyllic scene an artifice. The cover of The Wayward Bus pictures a couple having a picnic in a similar landscape, unaware they’re about to be smacked by the bus coming around the bend.
The same mood is echoed in the music. There’s a fair amount of sadness in these songs about love, but things never get morose. Rather, irony and fatalistic humor are the order of the day, as lines such as “I have a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself” in college-radio single “100,000 Fireflies” (later covered by Superchunk) keep things offbeat.
While both albums are credited to the Magnetic Fields, Distant Plastic Trees is actually a Merritt solo album, with the exception of lead vocals by Susan Anway. Her deadpan, coolly detached voice has just enough warmth to give the songs extra emotive depth to balance the often mechanized musical underpinnings. Not that Merritt’s reliance on synthesizer is without soul and humanity — he’s a master of creating sounds that don’t sound dated or overly artificial. Songs such as “Old Orchard Beach” feature crickets and marimbas, while another, “Babies Falling”, is ornamented in bubble sounds and chimes.
The production on both albums sometimes falls on the lo-fi side of things, though parts of The Wayward Bus are highly influenced by Phil Spector and, to a lesser degree, Brian Wilson. Merritt has their styles down, though songs such as “Candy” beg for a bigger wall of sound treatment, further emphasizing the drums and tambourine to bring them more in line with their Spector-esque ambitions.
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On Wayward Bus, he brought in more outside musicians and so began the development of what would become the Magnetic Fields on future albums. Yet, these guests perform on cello, tuba and cocktail drums — not the standard instruments for a rock/pop band. This idiosyncrasy results in both albums sharing a similar feel, as sounds Merritt might have generated with a synthesizer on Distant Plastic Trees are still there, but produced by their real, acoustic counterparts. Anway sings again on The Wayward Bus, though Merritt takes over lead vocal duties for all subsequent Magnetic Fields releases, making these two albums especially unique in the group’s discography.
The reissues have no bonus tracks, no historical essay, but they don’t really need that additional ornamentation. They stand on their own, fully able to be appreciated for the smart pop classics they are.