. issue XVI : vi .
Finally, the forever-yearning lo-fi misery-popsters are taking a roadtrip. Stephin Merritt’s ruminations on the open road leave nothing to the imagination: the intricately detailed tracks on The Charm of the Highway Strip are smothered in slow acoustic guitar, ingratiating Casio keyboard cheese, and loads of liquefied truck driver thoughts. The weariness of Stephin’s voice constantly offsets any cheeriness in the instrumentation. It’s a neat trick, and it works almost every time. Every syllable from his molasses mouth is uttered with a deep resonance and a sliding phrasing that glides over the synth-orchestras and rolling fields warmly and honestly.
“Lonely Highway” turns the ignition with a loping beat and some conversational muttering about the titular highway being a constant friend, while a few skewed keyboard bends are playing the third wheel. “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song” is arguably the album’s peak, and its gliding, countrified croon sets the bar high for the rest of the album. The poignant chorus, its lyrics almost meta- in construction (“Two characters in search of a country song / Just make-believe but so in love / Two characters been listening all night long / For voices from Nashville above”) is a mission statement for the entire album. Stephin is in search of the perfect country pop song to project his bar-napkin poetry and fill with stories about traveling through the south. Exotic synth instrumentation decorates “Crowd of Drifters,” elevating it into a sort of an old epic B-movie soundtrack leftover filled with a simple discussion of people disappearing or maybe even never existing.
Like Calvin Johnson, but with more singing- and life-lessons, Stephin deeply understands the nuances of gut-wrenching melody, even without an incredibly high range. When The Magnetic Fields made Charm of the Highway Strip in 1994, they somehow sounded slightly conventional on paper: ambling lo-fi country-pop with some unashamedly amateur keyboard adventures. However, Stephin’s dedication to the craft results in something wholly original, even within his own output: an album that combines the rough edges of country, baroque, and bedroom pop. Artificial fantasias, endless gravel pressing towards the overcast horizon, and warm beer drizzled with fresh saltwater tears have equal footing in his brain, and he’s happy to let you know that fact.
by Ryan Myers