The Magnetic Fields
The Charm Of The Highway Strip
The context: With 1994's The Charm Of The Highway Strip, professional shape-shifter Stephin Merritt applied his rapier wit and unparalleled genius for quotable couplets to the well-worn tropes of country music, all without abandoning his trademark chugging new-wave synthesizers and insanely infectious melodies. The resulting album somehow manages to be emotionally authentic, yet coated in multiple layers of irony.
The greatness: On his most fully realized album up to that point, Merritt hones in on the loneliness and self-loathing at the core of much country music. Highway Strip cleverly, candidly documents the doomed drifters who hit the open road to escape themselves, only to discover that there's no escape. Like Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, Charm pushes straight past sad, bittersweet, and melancholy on its way to that transcendent state where despair becomes strangely exhilarating, even life-affirming.
Defining song: It's easy to get choked up by the matter-of-fact way Merritt tells a lover, "One of these days I'm gonna leave you in your sleep" on "Born On A Train." Later, he sums up the album's jaded fatalism when he casually croons to the same soon-to-be-disappointed lover, "I know that you were never young / And I know you probably won't get old." This is what honky-tonk androids listen to as they softly sob into their beer.