In a lot of ways, this new album is business as usual for Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields. Whimsical, heartfelt and memorable songwriting packaged in an ultra-specific, hyperliteral concept album. 69 Love Songs, their unassailable classic from 1999, was exactly as the title suggested. The Magnetic Fields’ previous release, 50 Song Memoir (2017), designated one song for the first 50 years of Merritt’s life. Quickies, their latest, is a collection of brief vignettes, or “quickies”. 28 songs run through in just over 45 minutes – a handful of the tracks never crack the one minute mark.
Quickies is now out in its complete form, but it has been rolled out as a series of EPs. This has been a trend in the music industry, following the likes of Moses Sumney, Hayley Williams, and Dirty Projectors. The primary drive behind these decisions are economic. People stream instead of buy. To maximise listeners’ clicks, it’s best to release with more frequency. To add to that, the reality is that when it comes to music, the average listener consumes in smaller chunks. Thematically, Quickies may have a lot to say about that very fact.
The record starts off with the 35-second introduction of “Castles of America”. Playful strings and layered harmonies feature heavily on a more baroque pop offering. But this is directly juxtaposed later on in the track listing with “Castles Down a Dirt Road”, a synth-infused piece of rugged Americana. The palaces that began the album are reimagined to resemble the realities of America’s working classes.
The Magnetic Fields do not shy away from humour that is both irreverent and wickedly clever. On “The Biggest Tits in History”, these “tits” each weight half a pound versus “the average half an ounce”. But of course, that’s “if you feed them well”. Naturally, to no surprise, it is revealed that the government is breeding these massive female organs for cloning purposes. The song takes on a bright surf rock sound which also informs “Rock ‘n’ Roll Guy” which wouldn’t sound too out of place on a later Beach Boys record.
Obvious political implications are brought forward on the cheeky piano ballad “The Day the Politicians Died”. Band members trade absurd complaints about their significant others, such as a boyfriend who “drinks only the stinkiest gin,” or a girlfriend who “takes hours to make up her mind”. On tracks like “Love Gone Wrong” or “Kill a Man a Week”, the band does a great job of telling tragic, surrealist tales in the most succinct way possible.
“Bathroom Quickie”, lasting only 45 seconds, is anything but subtle about its uncensored subject matter. This to-the-point is taken even more to the extreme on “Death Pact (Let’s Make A)”, a song that says a lot in only 17 seconds. And in 43 seconds, the band presents a compelling character study in oppressive insect struggles on “Song of the Ant”.
Throughout the record, Merritt explores the importance of special places and the communities that give them life. “Favorite Bar” and “The Best Cup of Coffee in Tennessee” are a relatable ode to friendships and the pastimes they share. Through the use of traditional leaning folk melodies, “Come, Life, Shaker Life!” shares similar themes.
The record makes obvious song partnerships, both through song titles and subject matter. For example, “When the Brat Upstairs Gets a Drum Kit” clearly is meant to continue on with the ideas of “When She Plays the Toy Piano”. “I Wish I Had Fangs and a Tail” is a match to the concluding “I Wish I Were a Prostitute Again”. “I’ve Got a Date With Jesus”, the anti-Sunday School ditty is meant to supplement the tongue-in-cheek sacrilege of “You’ve Got a Friend in Beelzebub”. Jesus is apparently “so much better than Joe”.
The most complete cut on Quickies is “Kraftwerk in a Blackout”. Under the guise of aggressive guitar strums and chimes, this is a clay to “bust that dusty eight-track” and enjoy a moment despite current tension between two partners. The cycles of infatuation is once again explored on the aptly titled “Let’s Get Drunk Again (And Get Divorced)”.
In spite of the humour and absurdism, Merritt makes room for soul-searching introspection, especially on the latter half of the record with tracks like “The Price You Pay” and “The Boy in the Corner”. These songs are short, and there are a lot of them. Sure, a few cuts could have been better developed. On the other hand, most of these songs pack enough of a hook to get listeners to come back to them time and time again. Merritt finds ways to pack more heart into 30 seconds than most songwriters can fit into songs five times the length. Quickies isn’t their best album, but it is a solid addition to The Magnetic Fields’ ever-growing discography.