Sunday Funday - The Magnetic Fields and Washington Auroras

Seeing the aurora borealis over Iceland in 2012 was a life-changing event. It reminded me of how small and fragile each of us is in the cosmic scheme of things, and of how much there is that we don't know about the ever-expanding universe around us. I can see how primitive humans thought the aurora was a harbinger of the gods, for better or for worse, and marveled at or feared it. Little did they know that the wondrous light shows were caused by charged solar particles interacting with the planet's magnetic field.

Aurora Borealis courtesy of NOAA/SWPC
Courtesy of NOAA/SWPC
Given the news from The Atlantic's CityLab that a geomagnetic storm could potentially blanket areas of the country from New York to DC in an unexpected auroral show, I thought it a perfect time to resurrect a Magnetic Fields post I've been considering for a while. The brainchild of primary songwriter and lead singer Stephin Merritt, their songs feature a veneer of dispassionate and sardonic wordcraft over a nakedly impassioned core. Here's a selection of songs and videos for the novitiate, or for the prodigal listener returning to the band after a hiatus.

My first selection is the (slightly NSFW) video for "Andrew in Drag", from the band's 2012 release Love at the Bottom of the Sea. The notoriously curmudgeonly and openly gay Merritt inhabits someone else's headspace in this sleepy yet soaring tale of a straight man who falls in love with his friend's drag persona. If you haven't listened to the episode of the excellent podcast Song Exploder discussing this track, I'd recommend doing so.

The yin to Merritt's yang are his longtime collaborators and co-vocalists Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms. If Merritt is the band's head, they are collectively its heart. While he keeps his emotions buried under layers of cashmere and tweed, they proudly wear theirs on their sleeve while singing. This leads us to "Quick", another track from Love at the Bottom of the Sea, with lead vocals by Simms. The quirky video for the song was described by Consequence of Sound as cute in the manner "that Crazy People‘s Dudley Moore would call a box of Quaker Oats cute".

Next up is "I Don't Really Love You Anymore", from their 2004 record i. This album was the first in their self-described "no-synth trilogy", where they replaced the synthesized sounds of prior albums with live instruments. Never has a self-deluded ex whose feelings border on obsession been rendered in such a jaunty fashion.

We finish up with "If You Don't Cry", from the band's epic 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs. This song wouldn't have felt out of place on the 1982 album Upstairs at Eric's by Yaz (or Yazoo, depending on the side of the pond you inhabit). Helmed by Claudia Gonson, this song explores the dark and lonely side of the search for love.