The Magnetic Fields: ’50 Song Memoir’ reviewed

❉ A brilliant musical journey across Stephin Merritt’s timeline.

“It’s about art and love and morality and synthesisers; and for the most part it’s bloody brilliant.”

Is it possible to dislike The Magnetic Fields? Individual songs? Sure. Albums in their entirety? Perhaps. But the manner in which Stephin Merritt persistently defies genre, not just from record to record, but often from track to track means there’s got to be something for everyone in this back catalogue. It’s likely that even die hard fans hit the skip button at least once when listening to 69 Love Songs, but it’s still solid and worthy of its iconic status, the kind of lauded classic that 50 Song Memoir could well become.

The Magnetic Fields always seems strongest when constrained, like a musical Ernest Vincent Wright. As with 69 Love Songs and 2004’s magnificent i, 50 Song Memoir is a high concept project that takes the listener on a cultural, political and personal tour from Merritt’s first birthday to his fiftieth, year by year from ’66 Wonder Where I’m From to ’15 Somebody’s Fetish.  It’s about art and love and morality and synthesisers; and for the most part it’s bloody brilliant.

For those who enjoy physical media the five-disc box set is certainly worth the investment. It includes a 100 page booklet featuring hand written lyrics for every track and, 18 years after their exchange in a diner for the liner notes of 69 Love Songs, a 38 page conversation between Merritt and Daniel Handler (a frequent Magnetic Fields collaborator who some may know better as Lemony Snicket) in which 50 Song Memoir is pitched as the non-fiction response to the fictional 69 Love Songs. Unsurprisingly the two albums feel similar, but something about this work of non-fiction is more mature, less frivolous and infinitely more personal than the one that made Merritt’s name back in 1999.

“Whether it’s country, disco, synth pop, free jazz or rock ‘n’ roll you’re after you’ll find it here, but not necessarily when or where you’d expect.”

On the back of the box is a note:

“I’m Stephin Merritt and this is my autobiography in 50 songs, one for each year of my life. It’s mostly love and music, so don’t dig for much of a storyline. And if things get mellower as 50 looms, that’s life.”

These two sentences sum the album up more accurately, and certainly more concisely than any critic ever could. Those expecting a literal memoir over the five discs may be disappointed. There are glimpses of autobiographical insight, to be sure, but rather than two and a half hours of solipsism it’s more a cultural account of the last half century with hat tips to the likes of Grace Slick, Odetta, Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin before the narrator even hits puberty. As such some tracks will speak more to the listener than others. True to form every song lives in a different genre, but they all come together cohesively in Merritt’s distinct bass, sounding unmistakably like The Magnetic Fields. Whether it’s country, disco, synth pop, free jazz or rock ‘n’ roll you’re after you’ll find it here, but not necessarily when or where you’d expect. An easy option would have been to pastiche popular music of the time from year to year in this chronological account, but 50 Song Memoir never descends into parody, although there’s more than one respectful nod.

As for mellowing with age, that feels almost like a knowing apology. The first three discs are so strong that as we enter the 21st Century the intensity wanes a little; melodies aren’t as memorable and lyrics seem more like descriptive accounts than impassioned polemics. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like about the last two decades of reminiscence, but the real highlights sit well within what might be considered the memoirist’s formative years. Stand out tracks include  ’67 Come Back as a Cockroach, ‘70 They’re Killing Children Over There, ’77 Life Ain’t All Bad, ’92 Weird Diseases, ’15 Somebody’s Fetish and ’85 Why I Am Not A Teenager which, in an era of precarity, with a widespread narrative in the media of “baby boomers” sabotaging the prospects of “millennials” should, by rights, become an unofficial anthem for anyone under 35.

50 Song Memoir is comfortingly familiar in its sonic resemblance to earlier work which is sure to please existing fans, but there’s an uncharacteristic sense of intimacy and openness in this album that makes it special.

❉ To pick up a copy of 50 Song Memoir, head to iTunes, Amazon, or the Nonesuch Store, where CD and vinyl orders include a download of the complete fifty-song set at checkout.

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