#44: The Magnetic Fields – 100,000 Fireflies (1991)
Words about music. It’s an instinctive, compulsive habit, as if the act of banging away at the keyboard is intrinsically and irrevocably linked to the art of playing a record.
Because it isn’t simply about the music. This isn’t a construct that sits in isolation, quarantined in the ambient thrum of an amplifier or the vinyl’s precious grooves. Instead, the attraction to sound feeds from the relationship between each track and every listener – that unquantifiable element unpinning the experience of aural verisimilitude. It’s music as context. The sights, sounds and emotional flavours that serve as backdrop to a song breaching your awareness. This is music as an extension of memory, sonic structures that embed themselves into who you are – or who you were and what you’ve now become. So many tracks that I write about exist in such a holding pattern; tunes that define specific eras, have grown inseparable from even basic reminiscence.
‘100,000 Fireflies’ is not one of those records. Previous editions of Lazer Guided Melody have seen me outed as a fairly obsessive Stephen Merritt fan, so it’s a safe wager that a Magnetic Fields piece would appear in a list of favourite songs. However, where-as much of the back catalogue assumes the position of those signposts of recollection referred to in the previous, ungainly paragraph, this is a track that circumvents any listener-generated requirement for context – for the simple reason that it’s a close to a perfect pop song you could hope to stumble across.
It’s haunting, knowing, wonderfully erudite. It’s specifically unorthodox – a début single (!) that employs an obtuse arrangement, archaïques instrumentation, and in Susan Anway, a vocalist whose warmth isn’t immediate – and yet the assemblage directly points to the striking; a paean to savage, undercut ennui.
There’s a poignancy to the lyrics, a sharpness, words that you could pull from the confines of their musical setting yet still have them retain their potency. “I’m afraid of the dark without you close to me” is a simple, evocative, yet syrupy phrase; its deployment here is part of a sophisticated skein of balance where the words are double-edged, a love song that’s equally an anti-love song that’s just as much a metropolitan shrug of the shoulders.
All of which is very nice and all that, but what ‘100,000 Fireflies’ accomplishes more than anything is to redefine that emotional bond between the song and its listener, every time it’s played. It’s not reliant upon the spectral and illusionary tropes of personal nostalgia; rather, it exists as something omnipresent within the musical firmament. A crushingly beautiful record.
The Magnetic Fields / 100,000 Fireflies