69 Love Songs. The Charm of the Highway Strip. Distortion. The Magnetic Fields’ albums tell you straight-up what their concept is, and 50 Song Memoir sure delivers on its title’s promise. 50 songs. 5 CDs. 10 songs per CD. Each song representing a year in bonkers genius Stephin Merritt’s life, and not a single one of them over 4 minutes. Boom. As tidy as we’ve come to expect from this mad formalist.
At 2 hours and 30 mins this will demand a heavy chunk of your lifespan in order to play, replay, and let it sink in as it deserves. But it will reward your attention, with some of Merritt’s best quips, character sketches, and general musings on offer.
The twist this time around is the added ‘memoir’ element to the lyrics, a first for the notoriously aloof writer. In Merritt’s words these are: ‘a mix of autobiography (bedbugs, Buddhism, buggery) and documentary (hippies, Hollywood, hyperacusis)’. All set to his accustomed musical style of thickly laid on synthesizers, randomly assorted instruments (100+, most played by him) and of course ukuleles. If you’re not grinning several times throughout then maybe this whole ‘pop music’ thing isn’t for you.
Disc One: The most philosophical segment, the main topics here being religion, spirituality, and a wide variety of superstitions, all of which were instilled in the young Merritt by a mum who believes in everything… ‘Except crystal healing.’ Starting off agnostic by wondering where he comes from at just 1 year old, and winding up an atheist as he realises that the answer to most spiritual questions is plain old ‘No’, the coming-of-age transformation here is a repudiation of his single mother’s eccentric hippie values. The Magnetic Fields’ always childlike music, full of nursery rhyme singalongs and silly synthesizers, are just perfect for this formative decade’s subject matter, making this the best disc of the collection. Highlights: ’66: Wonder Where I’m From, ’68: A Cat Called Dionysus, ’70: They’re Killing Children Over There, ’74: No. Lowlights: ’72: Eye Contact. Rating: 4.5/5
Disc Two: The best disc is quickly followed by the worst. Born myself in ’92, too late to understand the supposed ‘romanticism’ of the New Romantics, I struggle to admire their influence on the music here and Merritt’s teenage years. He may have loved John Foxx, Neu!, and Japan whilst growing up, fine, but his music has always been far wittier and, in sharp contrast, ‘infinitely terse’. So even on the duller 80s-derived moments here there is a pithy line to keep you amused: ‘Let’s arrange our hair like Rorshach blots!’, say, or ‘It sounds like you’re torturing little metal elves/This is how to play the synthesizer’. And on this worst disc may just be the collection’s best track, a fuck you to one of his mother’s many jerk-off boyfriends that goes ‘Na na na na na na na/You’re dead now/Na na na na na na na/So I sing/Na na na na na na na na/Life ain’t all bad.’ Highlights: ’77: Life Ain’t All Bad, ’79: Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life, ’85: Why I Am Not a Teenager. Lowlights: ’81: How to Play the Synthesizer, ’84: Danceteria! Rating: 3/5
Disc Three: We’ve reached the college years. Which means intellectual discussions on morality in ethics and the works of Ethan Frome. But more importantly it means drinking, dancing, and sexual exploration – from the beautiful blonde man Merritt spots on a dancefloor and never sees again to Fred and Dave and Ted with whom he shacks up in a one-bedroom flat and shares more than just the limited space. Sadly this is the 90s, which means alongside the singer’s gay blossoming there is the ravaging despair of AIDs to contend with. Merritt survives to make music, but many of his friends don’t. This is their legacy. An excellent one, even if none of the songs are truly outstanding. Highlights: ’86: How I Failed Ethics, ’87: At the Pyramid, ’88: Ethan Frome, ’93: Me and Fred and Dave and Ted. Lowlights: ’89: The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo, ’91: The Day I Finally… Rating: 3.5/5
Disc Four: Here is classic Magnetic Fields territory – most of the songs on this disc are related to a pining for lost love. Merritt’s deep and laconic vocals never allow the grandiosity of his self-pity to become too much to bear, and they work just as well here at illuminating romantic isolation as on 69 Love Songs. Wandering around New York in the snow (track 6) is the central metaphor, a place of beauty and loneliness in equal measure, much like the bars he inhabits in the next song because he prefers beer to tea. Pianos and background choirs are more prominently placed, in a maudlin display counteracted by Merritt’s unsentimental voice and his extensive grasp of pop history from Bertolt Brecht to Tom Waits to the Stones, who in some way all inhabit the bawdy ‘XXX ex sex’ extravaganza. Highlights: ’01: Have You Seen it in the Snow?, ’02: Be True to Your Bar, ’03: The Ex and I, ’04: Cold-Blooded Man. Lowlights: ’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers. Rating: 4/5
Disc Five: Finally we arrive at the Merritt of his 40s, cranky and irritable yet still wryly amusing. He gets his kicks early on by bitching about the press, surfing, and an ex-boyfriend’s new lover: ‘Who has been sniffing around your back door?’ But then a strange and uplifting thing happens, first to the music which gains some bounce and pizzazz after the melancholy of the last disc (see especially ‘You Can Never Go Back to New York’), and then to the lyrics which round the album off with some beautiful, heartfelt love songs that suggest Merritt has finally found contentment. Of sorts. You never can tell for sure with this tricksy fella. Highlights: ’10: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, ’12: You Can Never Go Back to New York, ’13: Big Enough for Both of Us, ’14: I Wish I Had Pictures, ’15: Somebody’s Fetish. Lowlights: ’07: In the Snow White Cottages. Rating: 4.5/5
I must concur with my fave critic Robert Christgau that, overall, the album’s Achilles heel is the fact that Stephin Merritt takes on all the vocals, a rare feature on Magnetic Fields albums because it’s such a darn one-note voice. But really that’s nitpicking. The brilliance on display here is all his, all in the writing, leaving his reputation as one of the quirkiest and most admirable songwriters around still intact. ‘Everybody is somebody’s fetish’ he points out, and Merritt has enough wide-ranging appeal to please many people’s musical fetishes. So get going and begin exploring this rich 50 song set, in order to find those magical moments where his pleasures will joltingly align with yours.