Tunesmiths: Sunny Sweeney and The Magnetic Fields

The Magnetic Fields – 50-Song Memoir

Read student work often enough and the maxim “say what you mean” acquires the force of scientific law. But when Stephen Merritt writes “masterpiece of catastrophic love/In a small New England town” and, in a song about Edith Wharton’s brittle high school English class classic, sets it to a cornflakes jingle, he might as well be quoting the blurb on the Bantam Books dust jacket. Elton John set Bernie Taupin doggerel to cornflakes jingles too.

Sprinkled over this five-disc collection, a song for every year of his life, are tunes as powerful and full of pathos as their cousins on 1999’s epochal 69 Love Songs; some, like “’93: Me and Fred and Dave and Ted,” about a triad living amid cockroaches and sexual tension, and “’03: The Ex and I,” about good, fraught post-breakup sex, even share ideas of living that queers and straights could stand paying attention to. I’m taken with “’92: Weird Diseases,” whose year should indicate its subject; “’01: Have You Seen It in the Snow?”, mechanized clanking emulating the street noises of the New York he loves; the infinitely terse dismissal/daily affirmation “’77: Life Ain’t All Bad,” a dozen more.

The problem: Merritt sings them. All of them. Claudia Gonson didn’t always sing the sweet ones, nor did Dudley Klute always sing the sardonic ones. While practice has helped Meritt manipulate an inflexible baritone — check out “’99: Father in the Clouds” — he’s still not Philip Oakey, and Oakey has never insisted on releasing fifty tunes at once. A project to visit, hang out with for a while, abandon, and revisit, like Me and Stephen and Claudia and John.

Sunny Sweeney – Trophy

On her fourth album the Houston native wavers, poised between rejecting the standard tropes of female independence from the Nashvile sceme and embracing them with an subtlety that would change the “from” to “in” Nashville. Yet another song about pills bends its guitar in the usual neotrad shapes around the unexpected line “I only call my husband ‘baby’ cuz I love the word.” Elsewhere she leads with a piano-anchored “One For My Baby” plea to a bored bartender, waxes defensive about Texas, and looks to Hank Williams when Gretchen Wilson and Freedy Johnston sound like closer forebears. To return to my first point, listen to the title track, a spirited assertion of spousal exclusivity that, thanks to co-writer Lori McKenna, de-fangs the opprobrious metaphor: she‘s the prize, thank you. But her fulfillment depends on triumph over another woman. I squirmed when Miranda Lambert clung to this approach a few years ago. In a song as rich, inhabited so fully, in which Jacob Clayton’s fiddle and Fred Eltringham’s drums are special stars, not a crippling flaw. Besides, McKenna and Sweeney have earned the right to compose what they please, and for all I know the “you” who’s “so full of jealousy” might be another dude. On “Grow Old With Me” they give it a go at writing a standard — and may damn well have done it.

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