8
Dec 99

11. THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – “100,000 Fireflies”

FT • 460 views

Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The only thing worse than breaking up is not breaking up. And the only not-breaking-up-yet pop moment of the 90s worse than when Susan Amway sings “This is the worst night I ever had” on this track is when Steven Malkmus sings “The jokes are always bad / But they’re not as bad as this” on “Here”. But Pavement blow the rest of their song and the Magnetic Fields don’t, not by a long way.

“100,000 Fireflies” is the best song I know about a relationship’s awful decay orbit: the fighting, the regrets, the desperate floods of love, the fighting, and the last useless plans. That’s how I see it, anyway. It’s not a bitter or unpleasant song – it’s witty and poetic, and the last few lines will have anyone who listens biting their lip in recognition – but there’s a bruised melancholy here that Amway’s voice (distanced but rich) carries well.

The lyrics – possibly Stephin Merritt’s best, which is saying a hell of a lot – will stick with you forever, but so will Merritt’s brilliant, idiosyncratic production. Magnetic Fields albums have always made for odd pop listening, and Distant Plastic Trees – this song’s parent album – is in sound perhaps the strangest of all: fragile, ramshackle synthesiser songs, wheezing along and often broached by harsher buzzes and eerier noises. All the tracks sounded like they were recorded on some rococo Heath Williams contraption, fast approaching collapse. For “100,000 Fireflies” everything is trebly and close, the drum reduced to a stern background thud and the song almost completely driven by the cycling, calliope-tinted keyboards and Amway’s cut-glass singing. Like the song and the situation it describes, the result is a perfect mix of intimacy with claustrophobia.

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