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The Magnetic Fields' '100,000 Fireflies' Sounds The Way Being Lonely Feels

Detail view of Wendy Smith's cover art for <em>Distant Plastic Trees</em>, The Magnetic Fields' debut album, on which the song "100,000 Fireflies" was released in 1991.
Detail view of Wendy Smith's cover art for <em>Distant Plastic Trees</em>, The Magnetic Fields' debut album, on which the song "100,000 Fireflies" was released in 1991.

It starts with the kind of lyric you might expect near a song's end, a revelation so devastating that many songwriters would feel obliged to spend several minutes earning it first: "I have a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself." But this is where The Magnetic Fields' "100,000 Fireflies" begins, and its casual, matter-of-fact delivery of bad news does not relent. The music is skeletal, just a drum machine and some synthesized scaffolding, and it makes an icy bed for the beautiful, solitary voice guiding the listener through "the worst night I ever had." On this night, we learn, she has captured those titular light-up insects to keep her company, only to be reminded of the "starry eyes" of someone no longer there. This is a song about a life-threatening fear of being alone, and boy does it sound like it.

Susan Anway, the remarkable vocalist on this recording, died this month from complications related to Parkinson's disease. "We met Susan in the '80s in Boston, when she was the singer of a local band," the group said in its announcement on Sept. 9. "She sang lead vocals on the first two Magnetic Fields albums, The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees. She was a lovely person and will be missed by all of us."

Released in 1991 as the penultimate track on Distant Plastic Trees and the band's debut single, "100,000 Fireflies" was never a chart presence. It did not become famous by way of a movie or TV appearance, nor is it even among The Magnetic Fields' most played tracks on Spotify. But in the emotional outpouring that greeted the news on social media, it was the song fans invoked most frequently and passionately. One hailed Anway for her role in "one of the greatest love songs of all time with one of the best opening lines of all time." Another declared, "It is impossible to explain the depths to which Susan's voice in '100,000 Fireflies' [has] been baked into my neurology." I revisited the song myself and instantly teared up, remembering how comforting I'd found it in my early 20s, like a dear friend on a bad night.

So what is it about this song that has fostered such deep and personal attachments over the last 30 years? The answer may have something to do with all the things the song is not.

Stephin Merritt, the songwriter and central member of The Magnetic Fields, didn't know Anway well when he enlisted her for his debut. "Susan was very mysterious," he explains via email, "and we were almost never in contact." Her previous band, V; (the semicolon is part of the name), had a sensibility closer to punk, and songs like the slow-burning, spill-your-guts anthem "1926" showcased a volatile voice, brimming with range and expression. But Merritt had a more minimal vision in mind for his own band — one that banked on an audience so familiar with the tropes of famous 20th century love songs that he only needed to evoke their essence, and listeners would mentally fill in the rest.

He approached that mission with an appropriately small toolkit. "The instruments on Distant Plastic Trees are a Roland S-50 sampler, a Korg Poly-800 digital synthesizer, and a Yamaha RX21 drum machine, all controlled by a Macintosh 512K computer running sequences," he explains. Some tracks feature an ARP Odyssey synth played by hand; just one, "Plant White Roses," adds an acoustic guitar. Merritt added humanizing touches to that landscape by leaning on Digital Performer, a piece of music software he favored "specifically because it had sophisticated quantization that could make sequences sound honest-to-God hand-played, because I did and do find strict clocks cheesy."

But when it came to the vocals, Merritt's guidance for Anway was the opposite of what he'd given his machines. "I sent her demo tracks with me singing over them and strict instructions not to emote," he says, "and let the lyrics convey the feeling."

That poker-faced delivery has the effect of making Anway sound stunned by recent events — like someone in a dissociative state, blankly staring out the window, repeating the phrase, "I'm afraid of the dark without you close to me." And it works. One could argue that by the strictest pop standards, "100,000 Fireflies" is more like a suggestion of a song than a complete composition — yet it's that negative space that draws you close, that allows you to relate to the song so intimately. If the bombastic, maximalist arrangement of something like The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " suggests that a song belongs to everyone, the translucent veneer of "Fireflies" signals that this is for you and you alone.

Anway's performance, as familiar as it is distant, makes the perfect centerpiece for a song built out of contradictions. The melody is undeniably catchy, even though every section (apart from the "afraid of the dark" chorus, which gets one repeat) is compositionally unique: "Including the solo, it's A-B-C-B-D-E," Merritt says of the structure. The imagery is often childlike (Who is usually afraid of the dark? Who usually catches fireflies? Is that a toy piano we hear?), yet it addresses pain and loss at a stark, extremely adult level. Those opening lines, which read like a conclusion, are balanced by closing lines that read like an opening argument: "Why do we keep shrieking when we mean soft things? / We should be whispering all the time." It's just the kind of light cognitive dissonance that can interrupt a person listening on autopilot and make them wonder, What is going on here?

No matter how much one parses its details, there is something about "100,000 Fireflies" that remains impenetrably mysterious, just like its singer. "I would happily have known Susan better — she was fun," Merritt says. "But she was quite firm about not wanting to be known, which was mysterious enough to be part of the fun." Thirty years later, that mystery is both the beginning and end of their story. It's hard to believe, but Merritt says he has no idea what Anway thought of the two Magnetic Fields albums on which she served as lead vocalist, or if she ever heard them at all: The songwriter and the singer that launched The Magnetic Fields' discography together, he says, had not spoken since then.

As for the song's narrator and their estranged love, we're left to wonder about that, too. The song's final moments sound like the bargaining stage of grief playing out in real time: "You won't be happy with me / But give me one more chance / You won't be happy anyway." Perhaps when things are going well in our own lives, we can picture them working it out, approximating some level of content coexistence, even if true happiness is out of the question. During darker moments, we might imagine them spiraling into an extended shared misery, or cutting their losses and never speaking again. No matter how we come to it, Anway's vocal delivery is a waiting vessel, ready for us to pour our own emotional history into the outline she has sketched. It's a true collaboration between artist and audience.

In moments of peak despair, it is such a comfort — some would say a lifesaver — to have beautiful things to turn to that make you feel less alone. She had all those fireflies. We have this song.

Ryan H. Walsh is a musician and journalist, and the author of the book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.

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