The Magnetic Fields - 100,000 Fireflies
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Casual Magnetic Fields fans know little about Stephen Merritt’s work before 69 Love Songs, a state of affairs both understandable and unfortunate. That’s because most of it only vaguely resembles the pop history mishmash triple-decker that just about everyone and their freshman college English professor recognize as brilliant art. Pre-’99 Fields consists of a lot of lo-fi synth-pop, albeit with many of the group’s trademarks: there’s the morose, phlebotomizing cello cradling the instruments, boiling irony, and a penchant for finding fervor in depressing imagery. Musically, this material relies heavily on cheap synthesizers, and so the first flinch is to label it as pseudo-intellectual hipster synth-pop. This was what I thought initially—until I heard “100,000 Fireflies.”
The penultimate track on the Fields’ debut, Distant Plastic Trees (later reissued as a double album with their sophomore record, The Wayward Bus, and fittingly employed as its closer), “100,000 Fireflies” features the vocals of ex-lead vocalist Susan Anway. A ghostly, monotonous soprano, her pipes are similar to drummer Claudia Gonson’s if she were trying out for Red, White and Blaine. Without the vibrato and range of Merritt, the Fields’ earlier tunes possess token irony but little of the humorous undertones and sentimental charm of their more renowned output. Yet minus Anway’s trill, “100,000 Fireflies” wouldn’t work as well as it does, simply because her voice leaks sincerity. If Merritt were to take the lead, the song’s irony would be burdened by high drama; Anway’s vocals, frail and effortful as they are, are an appropriate counterpart to its author’s sarcastic melancholy.
Propelled by a chugging, programmed drum beat that calls to mind rubber buckets and trashcan lids, on which Merritt sprinkles a simple three-chord synth-bell melody, “100,000 Fireflies” could be some sort of maniacal hybrid of a choo-choo and a merry-go-round. With Anway’s voice barely tethering, she recites one of the more Merritt-orious lines in the songwriter’s oeuvre: “I have a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself.” Cut-and-dry is an apt description in more ways than one. While reeling over that whopper of an opening declaration, he switches up to the cozy image of a dobro that “sounds like a mountain range in love.”
Breaking from the first verse’s repetitive tone/tap, the chorus disarmingly morphs into piano-augmented jangle-pop. Delivered with Stipe-like phrasing, Anway shifts her delivery, relaxing her esophagus and stepping down an octave for a cupid’s bullseye: “I’m afraid of the dark without you close to me.” A particularly crafty line, and also a frighteningly direct one, Merritt’s sense of isolation is accentuated by his inclusion of an environment unseen, making its loneliness that much more pronounced. What’s unusual is that it’s the most addictive melody in the whole song, a teeter-tottering hook that’s as bouncy as its message is haunting.
Adding on a contrasting second verse, acting as more of a “Shiny Happy People”-esque continuation of the chorus, Merritt injects his now-commonplace fixation with lights, nighttime, and eyes, “I went out into the forest and caught / A hundred thousand fireflies / As they ricochet round the room / They remind me of your starry eyes.” But then, cleverly and initially unnoticeably, Anway’s vocal becomes a yawning resignation when she drawls, “This is the worst night I ever had.”
After an unnecessarily lengthy bridge, the artificial bells and drums leave room for a lonely, vertiginous piano and gulping bass drums. To this lilting arrangement, Merritt’s character takes the form of a questioning misanthrope. He ensures his love that “you won’t be happy with me,” only to shrink down and beg, “but give me one more chance” because, as he cynically points out, “you won’t be happy anyway.” For the follow-up, there’s the line “Why do we still live here? / In this disgusting town / All our friends are in New York,” which rather subtly indicates that he left those “friends” to be secluded with his darling, only to yearn for them when he’s now at his lowest. Fading away in frustration, the song closes with the psychological stew “Why do we keep shrieking / When we mean soft things? / We should be whispering all the time.”
In many respects, “100,000 Fireflies” is the first indication of the forthcoming pop adventure of 69 Love Songs: exotic instrumentation, a tongue wedged between its chompers, and a delineation of complex emotional states. More significantly, it’s executed near-flawlessly: when the protagonist recollects on the happier states of his relationship, the music, juxtaposed against the vocal melody, becomes elated; when the sentiments are grim, the tone becomes queasily desolate. This predilection for nuance, masked by a marked simplicity, makes this song equal to or better than much of the rest of the Fields’ output. It’s natural to try to figure out what Merritt, armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop history, is attempting to do—whether he’s doing indie in the guise of synth-pop or theatrical storytelling or something else entirely. But what’s special about “100,000 Fireflies” is as elementary as the tune itself: he’s simply creating terrific, nakedly emotional music, which is what the best songs are all about in the first place.
By: Tal Rosenberg
Published on: 2007-07-06