From the Basement: The Magnetic Fields
From The Basement #23
The Magnetic Fields/The Charm of the Highway Strip
One of my all-time favorite Atari games, back in the day, was the super-simple Night Driver. Basically, you were driving out-of-control at night, dodging oncoming traffic as you sped along, with no destination in sight. The only constants in the game were the 8-bit roar of the engine and the thin, weaving yellow line that stretched out to infinity. That is funny because that can pretty accurately describe Stephen Merritt's 1993 masterpiece "The Charm of the Highway Strip", all full of 8-bit noises and people running away into the darkness, with only the thin yellow line to save them from emotional car wrecks.
Taken from a strictly lyrical standpoint, this is a country record. It is a set of stories about people's inability to commit to love, fearing to be anchored in one place. The cast of characters includes a Native American woman who has lost everything because of the trains and the coming of the Fat Man. There is also a wanderer, who is neon gas, come to life from one of those broken roadside signs. Pretty much, the sentiment is summed up perfectly with the song title "When the Open Road is Closing In", with its desperate, yet resigned knowledge that everything must end and everyone must roll on. The brilliant twist of this piece is that it is told from the viewpoint of the person being left, showing that Stephen Merritt's songwriting genius knows no bounds.
Musically, as if to throw you on another loop, the album sounds like eighties record made almost entirely with cheap Casio keyboards, complete with onboard drum machines. Something about the genuine nature of the songs and the total commitment to the sound rises this album out of any potential of cheese. Also, any fan of the Magnetic Fields is pretty used to Mr. Merritt's use of the cheap electronics to push the musical envelope.
From the harpsichord opening of "Lonely Highway", to "I Have the Moon", quite possibly the loveliest song Stephen Merritt and company have ever written to date, the complex mix of songs make "The Charm of the Highway Strip" such a focused piece of work, exploring all sides of the wandering soul, without feeling one-sided or dull.
Definitely better to go back to than that Atari game…
- Grant Capes | 2004-03-25
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