On the Road With Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields

Songwriters have a long — and embarrassing — history of road songs. From “Life is a Highway” to “Every Day Is a Winding Road,” they’ve explored just about every possible metaphor involving roads, highways, cars, and anything else. In very few cases have the songs been good, but there is always room for exceptions.

In spite — and because of — the limitations involved with road music, the Magnetic Fields’ 1994 album The Charm of the Highway Strip (which Merge Records re-released on vinyl earlier this summer) works brilliantly. Songwriter Stephin Merritt produces an entire record about traveling, with full awareness of the clichés. What’s never clear is whether Merritt embraces these clichés or pokes fun at them. His use of metaphor indicates that each option is possible.

“Long Vermont Roads” is littered with metaphors. Merritt compares eyes to, among other things, “toothless young men” and “the Mesa Verde.” Throughout, he hits the listener with images without giving them much time to consider what they mean. In terms of coherence, it’s like listening to a Picasso painting. However, one part in particular sticks out:

And your eyes are Kansas City
In Kansas and in Missouri

On paper, this lyric is underwhelming, even stupid. Sung, it gets better. Merritt slurs “Missouri” until it sounds like “misery,” and as a result you can understand what he’s getting at. In the hands of a lesser singer (think Scott Stapp) this lyric would make you want to bang your head against a wall, but Merritt pulls it off, even if you doubt 14-year-olds will be quoting him in their Livejournals.

Still, any person who’s followed Merritt’s career knows he’s never met a metaphor he didn’t like, and he’s never been too afraid to sing something stupid. Perhaps it’s his love of Broadway musicals. Have you ever heard an awful Broadway lyric? Of course you have. Broadway lyrics can often be overdramatic, corny, and over-the-top, and even the best songs thrive on a “look at me, I’m so clever” attitude.

The genius of Highway Strip is that Merritt realizes the common ground between this lyrical style and country music, a genre known for being earnest. Merritt pulls it off because he knows that these road songs have a deeper meaning that rises above their lyrical shortcomings. For instance, check out the chorus for “Long Vermont Roads”:

After all those trains and all those breakdown lanes
The roads don’t love you and they still won’t pretend to
After all those days on god-forsaken highways
The roads don’t love you and they still won’t pretend to

As choruses go, it’s verbose, and “god-forsaken” seems a little out of place. Still, the chorus hints at a greater truth: Roads are not people, no matter how much we romanticize them. Sitting in the car listening to the radio for five hours isn’t exactly the great experience some songs make it out to be. Merritt suggests as much in the beginning of the song, when he mentions the “tacky song on the radio.” Perhaps he knows “Long Vermont Roads” is tacky. Still, because of his delivery and sense of humor, it stays with you.

MP3: The Magnetic Fields – “Long Vermont Roads”


One response to “On the Road With Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields

  1. I think you should write about my favorite Magnetic Fields song “I don’t believe you,” because it is the only song I know that uses the word “Ampersand”

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