It makes sense for any artist, at some point in their career, to attempt to recapture the essence of what made their most celebrated work so compelling, but such an undertaking is bound to give rise to all manner of problems, and this is especially true for revered indie pop eccentrics The Magnetic Fields. Masterminded by singer-songwriter extraordinaire Stephin Merritt, the Boston-based band has long since been venerated for their frequent genre-hopping and comprehensive conceptual capabilities, which came to full fruition on their magnum opus, the 172-minute epic from 1999, 69 Love Songs. True to its title, The Magnetic Fields’ crowning accomplishment is a three-volume concept album comprised of 69 tracks featuring themes of love in just about every form imaginable, with themes of homosexuality and bisexuality being integral to the record’s arc, given that Merritt himself is openly gay. Constantly shapeshifting between lavish, synth-driven pop songs, free jazz freak-outs, off-the-wall, lo-fi experimentation, sombre balladry and countless other approaches to songwriting, 69 Love Songs firmly established The Magnetic Fields as one of modern indie music’s most powerful authorities on compositional versatility. Perhaps more importantly, however, the album shone a light on Merritt’s witty, poignant and generally endearing story-based lyricism, which saw the singer retain a consistent sense of realism and populism amongst even his more obtuse or esoteric endeavours as a lyric-writer. With 69 Love Songs being succeeded by the “no-synth trilogy” — a set of three records released over the course of six years that saw the group strip back the synthesizers that had so commonly acted as the bedrock to their compositional process — it seemed as if The Magnetic Fields were content with pursuing other ambitious undertakings, rather than focussing on recreating a similar conceptual saga to that which had yielded their most cherished oeuvre to date. That was, however, until Stephin Merritt’s 50th birthday and the release of The Magnetic Fields’ second attempt at an epic chronicle rivalling 69 Love Songs with their newest record, 50 Song Memoir.
As its title indicates, 50 Song Memoir is an autobiographical album that encompasses 50 separate songs, with each one representing a year in the life of Stephin Merritt. Divided into five discs, each representing a decade in the musician’s life, The Magnetic Fields’ latest undertaking clocks in at just over two-and-a-half hours in length, during which Merritt’s lyrical pursuits vary from very real and very personal accounts of particular moments in his life, to more light-headed and comical scenarios, to songs that, surprisingly, abandon any autobiographical angle and simply see the songsmith comment on some broader concept. On the musical side of things, the group, once again, does its fair share of jumping between genres, with the stylistic tone of each track often being used to reflect the song’s subject matter, as was the case across 69 Love Songs and, indeed, much of The Magnetic Fields’ past material. As a cohesive project, the long-winded nature of 50 Song Memoir is hardly a hindrance to the record’s accessibility or digestibility, rather its 150-minute duration can be tackled in one sitting relatively effortlessly, largely as a result of just how engaging Merritt’s means of structuring a song’s narrative can be, whilst the band provides more than enough variation in the instrumentation and the production for there not to be something at least somewhat enthralling going on throughout the entirety of the tracklisting. The same was true of 69 Love Songs, which partially explains the extent to which it has remained a staple of indie rock, despite its obscene length. What 50 Song Memoir doesn’t quite capture in the same fashion as 69 Love Songs, however, is the same sense of consistency. Although some of The Magnetic Fields’ most compelling material, from both a musical and lyrical perspective, lands on this project, there nevertheless exists a discernible disparity in the compositional quality featured at various points across the record, with the first two decades being by far the strongest, whilst the latter discs see the group’s spark for solid songwriting start to wane somewhat. What’s more, with Merritt’s lyrical focus towards the backend of the tracklisting shifting more towards broader themes and ideas that exist outside of the autobiographical tone of the general concept of 50 Song Memoir, a substantial portion of the material on the last disc lacks the same personal charm that makes many of the record’s strongest moments so beguiling. In spite of the significant slump in songwriting strength that sees the material past disc two gradually dwindle in its capacity to capture and convey the same semblance of charm that makes Merritt’s talents as a storyteller so enchantingly human, 50 Song Memoir nonetheless seems justified in its ambition for the most part, with the record reinforcing the unrivalled compositional prowess that comprises The Magnetic Fields’ most definitive material.
Despite being faced with the undoubtedly daunting task of having to fill 50 songs with winsome tales about his own life, Merritt proves himself, once again, to have masterful finesse when it comes to knowing how to pace a record of such immense magnitude as to keep it on course and not lose the listener’s interest. As previously stated, it honestly cannot be stressed enough just how easy it is to digest 50 Song Memoir, even if one were to listen to the entire album in one sitting, but pinpointing exactly how The Magnetic Fields pull this off is not quite so easy to decrypt. For the most part, however, the success with which Merritt maintains a consistent level of engagement from the listener circles back to the tonal tightness of much of the record, with the myriad stylistic pursuits boasted throughout the tracklisting mirroring the overall character of the songwriter’s personal limericks. As an example, there exists an undeniable childish charm to the timbre of many of the album’s first songs, as is reflected in Merritt’s more whimsical and starry-eyed poetry, such as on ’70: They’re Killing Children Over There, as he recalls his five-year-old self attending a Jefferson Airplane show and misunderstanding vocalist Grace Slick’s protest of the Vietnam war, as she sings, “They’re killing children over there”, thinking that some kids were being attacked inside the concert venue. Indeed, the use of ukulele on a song such as ’66: Wonder Where I’m From, as it plays against the bounce of the swaying bass line and Merritt’s show tune-style vocal intonation, or glockenspiel on ’67: Come Back as a Cockroach, which manages to consistently shine through the playful hand percussion, joyous spurts of horns and dainty acoustic guitar licks, successfully moves the indulgent orchestration of previous material from The Magnetic Fields into the nursery, and the childish cheerfulness of the songs’ lyrics aptly parallels this. ’67: Come Back as a Cockroach, for instance, sees the singer give thought to his loving relationship with animals, which eventually led him to convert to veganism, but through the eyes of an artless child who shies away from other boys who hurt insects for fun, as a result of his apprehensions that he may one day come back as a cockroach in another life. The airtight consistency in the tone of much of 50 Song Memoir continues into the second decade of Merritt’s life, wherein the instrumentation begins to take a more experimental and unconventional turn, as an amusing reflection of the rebellion and soul-searching that comes with being an adolescent boy. As the musician recounts an August spent in London as a teenager with a keen interest in New Romanticism on ’80: London by Jetpack, for instance, visiting everything from Abbey Road studios to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, it’s appropriate that his vocal inflection should assume a more post-punk-orientated tinge that isn’t too far off from Ian Curits’ signature lilt, which was perhaps deliberate given that this story takes place only three months following the legendary singer’s suicide. The succeeding song, ’81: How to Play the Synthesizer, although not a tale that pertains to Merritt’s life specifically, boasts a wobbly, Kraftwerk-esque synth line as Merritt delineates the mechanics of the synthesizer in great detail. ’85: Why I Am Not a Teenager brings this portion of the musicians’ life to a droll, yet plaintive, close, as Merritt laments the fact that he has now had to let go of his adolescent fantasies of being an underground film maker or the owner of a planetarium, and instead half-heartedly embraces his life as a working adult, “making ice-cream on trucks, shovelling horse products, washing dishes and making popcorn”. Even past his teenage years, however, the tracklisting brandishes a fair few gems that live up to the humorous heights of the first two discs. As an example, the fact that ’86: How I Failed Ethics, during which Merritt details the derisive attitude towards his curriculum at New York University that eventually led to him dropping out of college to pursue a career in music, features a muted and almost mournful instrumental only adds to the insincere hilarity of the singer’s 21-year-old self failing his course for scoffing that ethics is merely “an offshoot of aesthetics”. ’02: Be True to Your Bar stands out as one of the few genuinely meta moments in the tracklisting, as Merritt offers a revised take on The Beach Boys’ iconic hit from 1963, Be True to Your School, that reminisces about the connection he felt with many of the bars and cafés around Manhattan, in which he wrote much of the material from 69 Love Songs. Likewise, the pastel piano ballad that accompanies his nostalgic meditations matches much of the tone of 69 Love Songs, to the point of almost offering a fresh glimpse back into that album’s world, given that Merritt is playing himself at the time of the record’s writing. Ultimately, it’s the well-balanced tone and stylistic variation of 50 Song Memoir that results in the pacing being fluid enough to accommodate for two-and-a-half hours’ worth of material without risking losing the semblance of immersion and emotional investment that keeps the listener bound to the delightful charm that permeates practically any song topic that Merritt should happen to select as representing an entire year of his existence.
Of course, although this is most definitely true for the most part — otherwise the prospect of sitting through 50 Song Memoir in its entirety several times would be far more formidable for me than how undemanding and generally painless it is in actuality — there nevertheless exist substantial kinks in the record’s narrative that impede its capacity for crafting the same impermeable cohesion and consistency that made 69 Love Songs so compelling. A great deal of this relates to the tone of Merritt’s storytelling throughout the tracklisting, which, despite the album’s concept, occasionally veers away from the autobiographical slant that one would expect from a record comprised of 50 tracks dedicated to every year of the artist’s life. Whilst this issue shows up more prominently later on in the tracklisting, it undoubtedly permeates even some of the earlier discs, with the songster choosing to devote certain years to broader events that don’t pertain specifically to his own existence. Needless to say, Merritt most definitely handles these topics with his usual quirky wit most of the time, but the issue arises from the fact that it can be quite jarring from the listener’s perspective to have a series of incredibly personal and revealing ballads abruptly disrupted by a song that covers a more comprehensive aspect of pop culture. A prime example from the first disc would unequivocally be ’69: Judy Garland, during which Merritt puts forth the controversial case that the death of the iconic gay actress after which the song is named was a contributing factor to the instigation of the Stonewall Riots, which occurred within one week of Garland’s barbiturate overdose. Whilst these events are unequivocally significant for Merritt as a homosexual adult, the lyrical tone of this song massively interrupts the childish innocence of the surrounding cuts, and the singer’s ruminations on these events reflects his thoughts and feelings as an adult, not as the child he was at the time of their occurrence. What’s more, although the ideal behind the final song in the tracklisting, ’15: Somebody’s Fetish, in which the singer comes through with a droll but positive message that expounds the fact that everybody is somebody else’s fetish, the track offers no semblance of resolution or conclusion to the record’s autobiographical arc, finalising 50 Song Memoir on somewhat of a loose-end. Likewise, taking another song placed later in the tracklisting such as ’04: Cold-Blooded Man, despite it being influenced by a broken-down relationship from Merritt’s life, the lyrics aren’t framed from a personal angle that stays true to the concept of the memoir, rather it addresses the somewhat broad topic of being given the cold shoulder by one’s partner. In fact, the only reason that this song can be connected to an event in Merritt’s own life is because of his comments on the track in the lyric booklet that accompanies the album, as he explains it to be the antithetical sister song of Sweet Lovin’ Man from 69 Love Songs and goes into detail about being left for one of his lover’s students. The same is true of numerous cuts from the latter two decades of the album, such as ’98: Lovers’ Lies and ’03: The Ex and I, wherein such songs would seemingly have no connection to a particular incident in Merritt’s own life were it not for him explaining their significance to him in the liner notes. On the topic of the record’s liner notes, however, one comment that was particularly interesting regarded the quality of the songs throughout the tracklisting, and the fact that many of the cuts towards the backend of the album were far more elementary and commonplace for a project from The Magnetic Fields than those towards the beginning of 50 Song Memoir. Whilst this is still undoubtedly a point of criticism, I found it amusingly self-aware that, in the liner notes, Merritt should acknowledge that many songs on the latter two discs are slightly sparser from a compositional perspective, but attributes this to be a reflection of the nature of ageing, saying, “if things get mellower as 50 looms, that’s life”. Whether or not Merritt genuinely wrote the record’s later songs in the mindset that they should be more understated and dusty as to mirror the passage of time is unclear, but the fact that the singer should at least recognise that many of the cuts towards the backend of 50 Song Memoir are more compositionally rudimentary encapsulates the scintillating charm that comprises the artistic identity of Stephin Merritt and has fortified his position as one of the finest singer-songwriters of our time.
Although any concept album as long as 50 Song Memoir will surely turn some people off, if given the chance, Merritt’s zany humour and incisive intimacy is more than enough to retain the listener’s full attention across the record’s 150-minute duration. Of course, that’s not to say that there are no pitfalls in the narrative presented across 50 Song Memoir that act as a somewhat disappointing disruption to the autobiographical tone of the project, but if one were to think of the songs guilty of this as isolated from the broader themes of the album, Merritt’s expertise as both a composer and a lyricist are sure to shine through as they would on any other recording from The Magnetic Fields. Naturally, it’s hard not to compare 50 Song Memoir to 69 Love Songs, but, although the former lacks the same conceptual commitment of the latter, the ambition and allure of such an undertaking remains in tact, which is unequivocally bolstered by Merritt’s captivating persona. Overall, whilst 50 Song Memoir may not be the extensively immersive and airtight autobiographical opus that it surely could have been, the tonal tightness of its best moments and the strong devices utilised to smooth out the pacing of the project result in an undeniably enjoyable listen whose greatest accomplishment is perhaps just how effortlessly it sees two-and-a-half hours fly by.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10