Equipped with skittish melodies and mainstay twee charm, the Magnetic Fields have charted a dependable course of spikey, if at times affected, irreverence throughout their three-decade existence, responsible for Holiday’s synth-dappled allure and jewel in the crown 69 Love Songs – reference points that continue to defy a sense of shelf life. In follow-up to 2017’s autobiographical 50 Song Memoir, the indie pop flag-bearers re-emerge with five-EP boxset Quickies; an aptly titled cache of ditties, sporting Stephin Merritt’s knack for whip-smart lyricism, doused in idealized coming-of-age longing.

Forged out of an interest in French baroque harpsichord music, Lydia Davis’ short fiction as well as Merritt’s own experience penning the Scrabble-themed 101 Two-Letter Words, this 12th collection bares all the idiosyncratic, socially peripheral hallmarks lining the outfit’s creative palette. Brevity is, as expected, the dominant concept here, Merritt’s sonorous baritone drawl, juxtaposed with Shirley Simms’ sugar-coated vocals, peppering its 28-track, near 40-minute extent – striking a well-versed dichotomy between naiveté and ennuied reflection.

Quickies remains true to form, in this respect, the band’s songwriting shifting between the ambiguous and clear-cut; inner desires, unfulfilled and otherwise, delineated through a typically blasé, off-beat sense of transparency – the gritty and suggestive deployed with unabashed bubblegum innocence. “Bathroom Quickie” being perhaps the most discernible example of the explicit rather than implied, its title and substance leaving very little to the imagination – an instance of Merritt, in his own candid way, drawing on lived experience.

Confessional yarns alternate with the socio-political and universally relatable. “Favorite Bar”, case in point, ponders on an ideal of acceptance and sanctuary; a watering hole where “they leave you your dignity” and are free to “play the Fifth Dimension on the jukebox.” Such tongue-in-cheek humor has perennially remained at the center of the band’s appeal, filtering everyday trials and tribulations through unerring drollness – value gleaned in the bittersweet, rather than pivoting entirely from a dour sense of resignation. This underpins standouts such as “Come, Life, Shaker Life!” and “Castle Down a Dirt Road”, which orientates through a rugged notion of Americana.

The very nature of the Magnetic Fields’ latest, rooted as it is in economy and concision, heightens the staying power of Merritt’s approach. Brief vignettes fraught with fragile fantasy and other familiar tropes tease a need for extension, but often tap further power from its overtly succinct form. “Kraftwerk in a Blackout”, for instance, with its frenetic intricate strings clipped at just under two minutes, leaves a lingering desire for a fully fleshed out version, rather than a premature closing fade out into the abyss. Enticing the listener but ultimately leaving them high and dry figures as yet another tool in the outfit’s playbook – feeding into a mischief inherent in Merritt’s work. Criticism that the latter lurches into outright gimmickry with Quickies could be at least partially justified but the direction taken fails to detract, only helping to heighten the Magnetic Fields’ effusive attraction.

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