Everyone’s got to start somewhere. Even geniuses. ‘Distant Plastic Trees’, Stephin Merritt & co’s first record is virtually unrecognisable from what his music has become. For a start it sounds like it could easily have been made for the price of a KFC mega bucket; the lo-lo-fi synth pop on display somehow manages to reach over to plenty of different styles – from country to spacey dream-pop to avant-garde dissonance – with the same instrumentation, which is impressive in itself. Most of the time, when the music itself sounds ridiculous or even comical, it’s saved by singer Susan Anway. Anway’s often moving vocals have the sound of a woman who is holding onto nothing and wandering why she’s still standing. Even the bizarre experiment ‘Kings’ works (a bit) once she steps in or else it could easily sound like one of John and Yoko’s bonkers tape-recorder cock-ups (well obviously better than that, since everything is). In terms of songwriting, Merritt is clearly no novice; through the shoe-string soundboard, the melodies are nearly always strong and the lyrics meaningful. You can forgive the slip ups (there are quite a few here and there) because the high points are so high that all is forgiven. ‘Living In An Abandoned Firehouse’s blurry dream-scape is sonically the best thing here and cleverly forces together bleak, almost macabre imagery with an impossibly romantic atmosphere. ‘Josephine’ is a Napoleonic fantasy set against a backdrop drive-in movies and science fiction while a single repeating synth phrase sputters in the background. ‘100,000 Fireflies’ may initially sound like something that comes out of a novelty Christmas decoration but it’s one of the greatest songs Merritt will ever write and the last verse is nothing short of heartbreaking.
For better or for worse, Susan Anway left after their next album (the camp and often embarrassing blot on The Fields’ discography ‘The Wayward Bus’) leaving Merritt to be become easily one of the best, most ambitious songwriters on the planet. These humble beginnings, however, hint at the greatness to come. In fact one or two of his best songs can be found here. It’s mixed in with a handful of screw-ups and it’s not at all representative of Merritt’s talent (more money helps), but it’s worth a look for ‘100,000 Fireflies’ and ‘Firehouse’ at the very least. Still, for The Magnetic Fields, do not start here.
Key Track: 100,000 Fireflies
Listen to this: Miserable