The Magnetic Fields – 50-Song Memoir (Nonesuch)
This is literally Stephin Merritt’s life work: 50 autobiographical songs, one documenting each of the first 50 years of his life, spread over five discs (or 2½ hours).
There is no other modern songwriter audacious enough to attempt such a feat, never mind pull it off. At least, no other songwriter with an audience that might care. But this is the man who, in 1999, was a largely obscure songwriter on the periphery of indie rock (a genre he despises) and managed to vault into the hearts of thousands with a 3CD set called 69 Love Songs, which became the kind of gift that generations of geeks enthusiastically exchanged, and still gets played at weddings today (or given as a wedding gift). The arguably arch concept on that album was executed by a stable of guest singers and generous genre-jumping that ensured an eclectic listen. It’s a work that is at once Merritt’s greatest triumph and his albatross: everything he’s ever done since has been compared to that opus. This time, however, making a comparison is entirely fair. And he comes up short.
Here, Merritt sings all the songs himself—which of course is fitting, given the nature of the project. But his wobbly baritone, the fragility of which he toys with throughout, is hardly capable of sustaining a work of this length. (The Klaus Nomi-like backing vocals on “84: Danceteria” are a more-than-welcome touch.) It doesn’t help that the musical backdrop rarely changes: lagging mid-tempo rhythms on little more than ukuleles and guitars, with minimal synth or keyboard touches and few flashes of percussion.
Then there are the characteristically oddball touches, like the plastic resonator tube solo stuck into the middle of “03: The Ex and I,” or the sound of what sounds like Merritt stumbling around Tom Waits’s junkshop accompanying himself only on various noisemakers and clumsily played cymbals on “91: The Day I Finally…” As ridiculous as they sound, those moments are what make the record tolerable, if only because they break up the morose monotony.
If the presentation is lacking, however, the songs are not. If Merritt’s last two albums (one as Magnetic Fields, one as Future Bible Heroes) found him sounding somewhat adrift and without purpose, 50-Song Memoir has plenty of reasons to remind fans what a gift he has, even if it’s an inhuman ability to extract a melody from a lyric like, “I spent the blizzard of ’78 on a commune in northern Vermont.”
For an autobiographical work, 50-Song Memoir is not as navel-gazing as one might expect; specific details and first-person narratives aside, almost (*almost*) everything here could be covered by another singer or band—and, in fact, those songs would probably be in better hands if they were. Some songs are not about Merritt at all, but might be pithy observations pulled from his habits in any particular year. Like this mega-meta-theatre opening couplet, from “02: Be True to Your Bar”: “Sitting in bars and cafés / writing songs about songs and plays within plays / but how rarely we dare to write something that says anything about bars and cafés.”
If 69 Love Songs was the moonshot that propelled Merritt into mountains of acclaim (and a modest career) by appealing to people who’d never heard of him before, 50-Song Memoir could only possibly appeal to fans who have stuck with him through thick and thin. Then again, those kind of people are the only ones you’d want rifling through your autobiography anyway.
Stream: “Rock and Roll Will Ruin Your Life,” “Foxx and I,” “Weird Diseases”