Stephin Merritt: Records That Changed My Life

Anna Walker

Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields talks us through some of the records which changed his life. 

Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd by The Monkees

Additional players: Five Easy Pieces director Bob Rafelson, cocktail piano; Paul “Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music” Beaver, Moog synthesizer—one of the first 20 made, belonging to Monkee Mickey Dolenz 

Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd by The Monkees album cover

It is fair to say that when I saw Micky Dolenz on TV wearing a corduroy turtleneck, twiddling the knobs of a huge Moog modular synthesizer, while singing about “phantasmagoric splendour,” the course of my future was pretty much settled—I loved the lyric “mountainsides put arms around the unsuspecting city!”

“Pleasant Valley Sunday,” a Goffin/King song protesting the very existence of suburbs, wormed into my unformed suburban brain and never left. How dare there be suburbs! 

 

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) by Brian Eno

Additional players: drums, Phil Collins; guitar, Robert Fripp; strings, Portsmouth Sinfonia (a classical ensemble of deliberately varied ability and unpredictable intonation) 

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) by Brian Eno album cover

When my charmingly bonkers friend Audrey gave me this, my very first Eno record, I didn’t know what to think: A concept album about espionage? A sort of test recording for various unique guitar effects? Beautiful melodies sung rather obnoxiously over hastily tuned guitars? Imponderably deep, or gleefully meaningless? Avant-garde brilliance, or zany claptrap? 

I still don’t know, and although I have gone through multiple copies of the album I don’t know yet if I actually like it. Can it really be all the above? I did make a bootleg T-shirt of the cover, so I definitely want people to THINK I like it. But do I? 

 

Tusk by Fleetwood Mac

Additional players: horns, percussion: University Of Southern California Trojan Marching Band 

Tusk by Fleetwood Mac album cover

This happened twice: I am just sitting around, and I think, “Let me put on a record. I know! How about Tusk?” 

And then as I reach for the record, I realise there is actually a record playing, and it is Tusk, and that I know it so well I don’t actually hear the difference between it playing in my head and playing over the speakers. 

I got Tusk for free in the mail from the Columbia Record Club, and I thought it was stupid. All the drums were too loud, the lyrics didn’t make any sense except the insipid parts about love, everything was either too long or too short… And then there was “Beautiful Child,” the most beautiful pop song I had ever heard. (I had not yet heard ABBA’s “I Have a Dream.”) I was hooked. 

Over the years Tusk has become the music I know best, but under new listening conditions, I can still hear new things in it. On headphones, it’s…astounding. 

 

On Land by Brian Eno

Additional players: Daniel Lanois, infinite guitar; Jon Hassell, trumpet; frogs, rooks

On Land by Brian Eno album cover

Brian Eno broke my stereo. In the liner notes for On Land, he suggests connecting a third speaker, without mentioning that this will fry your output amp and void your warranty. 

No matter! On Land is the audio equivalent of the Blob: oozing all over the place, nothing to hold onto, with various animals stuck in it; and it’s about as hummable.

It’s not experimental exactly, since it doesn’t seem to set down any rules (except maybe, “erase nothing”); and it’s not improvisational, exactly, at least not in real-time; and it’s not noise, quite, because there is usually some sort of pitch, though never rhythm or harmony or melody.

It’s definitely tape music, and couldn’t be performed live in any way. It’s also a concept album about places and landscapes, and how a piece of music can conjure a location that never existed. I even like it! Maybe I’ll make another bootleg T-shirt. 

 

The Magnetic Fields’ new collection Quickies is out May 15, on Nonesuch

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