The Magnetic Fields “50 Song Memoir”

The Magnetic Fields

50 Song Memoir

[Nonesuch; 2017]

Rating: 9.5

If 50 Song Memoir is proof of anything, it’s that Stephen Merritt is at his best when facing a monumental challenge. In 1999, he released 69 Love Songs, a box set that was just that – 69 songs about love, each told with Merritt’s signature bittersweet, often humorous lyrics. Since that seminal release, Magnetic Fields have stagnated a bit with a handful of meandering, mixed-bag albums. But in 2017, the songwriter has returned to his muse with another gargantuan challenge: to write 50 songs about his 50 years on this planet. Not only does he meet the quota, but the massive task helped him to shake the cobwebs off of his muse and write some of his best material in over 20 years.

Some may find the idea of a five-CD, 50 song album to be a bit too tedious, but Merrit masterfully tells his story in a way that is endlessly entertaining and continuously mysterious. This isn’t a straight-forward memoir (we never learn the names of his parents, if he has siblings, or the names of his lovers); instead, each song plays as a snapshot – sometimes a hilarious story (a mean cat, failing an ethics class in college, a song about how surfing is a dumb sport) and sometimes a heartbreaking revelation (the impact his mother’s boyfriends would have on him over the years, fears of the AIDs epidemic, mental illness). Merrit is at his finest though when the songs are a combination of both his signature snark and sadness.

“Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life”:

Merritt is often celebrated for his ability to tell outlandish stories with precise language and vivid imagery. His knack for melody is often overlooked, but on 50 Song Memoir he delivers more often than not with songs that you can’t shake from your head (listen to “Hustle ‘76” once and try not to find yourself singing it to yourself for the next week). To write an album of 50 songs and have 80% of them be instantly recognizable is quite the feat, but Merritt brings the melodies again and again. The album does have its head scratchers, but even these moments of levity add layers to the complex life of Merritt.

“Hustle ‘76”:

On the second to last track on the album, he lays out the purpose of his album with “I Wish I Had Pictures.” In the song, he wishes that he could be an artist, a poet, or even an actor. Instead, he is what he is: a songwriter. He the self-defeating final verse, he encapsulates the entire album: “I’m just a singer; it’s only a song/ The things I remember are probably wrong/ I wish I had pictures of every old day/ Cause all these old memories are fading away.” Thanks to 50 Song Memoir, these memories will stick with him and his listeners just a little bit longer.

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