The Magnetic Fields is a band led by New York City singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt. Albums released by Merritt under the name "Magnetic Fields" usually consist of synthpop music in a 1980s style underlying clever lyrics, often about love, that are by turns ironic, bitter, and humorous. While The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees (now available together as a compilation) are sung by Susan Anway, later albums were principally sung by Merritt himself (though Shirley Simms handles about half of the vocal duties on Distortion.)
The band began as Merritt's studio project, under the name Buffalo Rome, with him playing all instruments. With the help of friend Claudia Gonson, who had played in Merritt's band The Zinnias during high school, a live band was assembled in Boston, where Merritt and Gonson lived, to play Merritt's compositions. The band's first live performance was at T.T. the Bear's Place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1991 where they played to a sparse audience that was expecting to see Galaxie 500 spin-off Magnetophone.
One of the group's most significant albums to date is its 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs. It showcased Merritt's songwriting abilities and the group's musicianship, demonstrated by the use of such unorthodox instruments as ukulele, banjo, accordion, cello, mandolin, flute, xylophone, and Marxophone, in addition to their usual setting of synthesizers, guitars, and effects. The album features vocalists Shirley Simms, Dudley Klute, L.D. Beghtol, and Gonson, each of whom sings lead on six songs as well as various backing vocals, plus Daniel Handler (A.K.A. Lemony Snicket) on accordion, and longtime collaborator Christopher Ewen (of Future Bible Heroes) as guest arranger/synthesist. Violinist Ida Pearle makes a brief cameo on "Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side."
The band's recent albums, i (2004) and Distortion (2008), both followed the album theme structure of 69 Love Songs: The song titles on i begin with the letter (or, in the case of half the songs' titles, the pronoun) "I", whilst Distortion was an experiment in combining noise music with their typically unconventional musical approach. The liner notes claim the album was made without synthesizers.