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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.

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Top 100 Tracks of 2010 (75-51)

 

75. “Doubt”

The Corin Tucker Band

I always thought Carrie Brownstein was the more punk rock of the ladies in Sleater Kinney. I always thought she had the fire, the anger, and the edge that counteracted Corrin Tucker’s more feminine approach. I was wrong. So wrong.

 

74. “Stranded”

The Walkmen

I’m a sucker for trumpets, especially when they sound this damn dreamy.

73. “Theme From ‘Cheers””

Titus Andronicus

Looking back on my year, one memory that stands out the most is when me and BDWPS contributer PtheStudP visited Cheers in downtown Boston.  After a two-hour marathon at a beer festival, our tour guide Steph led us to Cheers where her friend Justin was bartending.  What I thought was going to a quick tourist visit turned into hours of drunken splendor. Soon the variety of beers and shots somehow turned into a night of boisterous chanting of  “U-S-A!”, “Lord-By-ron!”, and “Tom Arn-old!”  This song brings me back to that night, not necessarily because of the reference to Cheers in the title, but the chorus that could have easily been one of our chants that night: “So let’s get fucked up, and let’s pretend we’re all okay, and if you’ve got something you can’t live with, save it for another day. Save it for another day.”

72. “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

The National

After carrying The National’s Matt Berninger to Ohio, I’d like that same swarm of bees to visit Jim Tressel’s house.

71. “Tame On the Prowl”

The Medications

In most cases, my adoration of The Medications stems from trying to untangle the vine of intertwined guitar licks in each song.  “Tame On the Prowl” continues this tradition, but also features a melody that will quickly wrap around your Hippocampus.

70. “Whores; The Movie”

El-P

Not only is “Whores; The Movie” a stellar song, but it would also make a great movie (preferably in 3-D).

69. “Leave You Forever”

Cloud Nothings

I could never leave this song forever.

68. “Apartment Wrestling”

Maximum Balloon (featuring David Byrne)

If you’ve ever wondered what TV On the Radio would sound like if they joined forces with The Talking Heads, it’s as amazing as you expected.

67. “Grief Point”

Destroyer

This is not really a song, rather an audio-short-film, or an audio-psycho analysis, or maybe just the ramblings of a confused artist. Whatever the case, this eight minute insight into the mind of Dan Bejar and his view of music at this point in his career is fascinating.  Earlier this year, Bejar discussed ending his recording career altogether (fortunately he didn’t with a new album coming out soon), and this B-side to his “Archer on the Beach” EP captures him in the midst of this confusion of what role his music plays in both his life and his listeners.  Plus, I just like the imagery of “picnic baskets filled with blood”.  Call me a hopeless romantic!

66. “Fresh Hex”

Tobacco (featuring Beck)

“Maniac Meat” is such a fun fucking album and on “Fresh Hex” Beck joins the party, giving the album his own fresh take on their energetic sound.

65. “Pop Culture (revisited)”

The Ponys

The Ponys originally formed in Chicago back in 2001, and one of their earliest songs was “Pop Culture”.  For whatever reason, this song never made it onto a major record, only being heard during live performance.  I can still remember them playing this song when I first saw them live four years ago.  But in 2010, with the release of their song EP “Deathbed Plus 4”, “Pop Culture (revisited)” was finally released from captivity, and it sounds as lively as ever.

64. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”

Frightened Rabbit

Water has always represented rebirth, and on “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” singer Scott Hutchison swims not only for a renewal, but also to feel alive again.

 

63. “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”

The Magnetic Fields

This past year I’ve had to learn how to forgive others, and also tried to gain forgiveness for those I’ve hurt.  In both cases this isn’t the easiest of tasks.  As the person who was wronged, there is some agitation with the idea that by simply saying “I’m sorry” that everything goes back to the way they were. They don’t and they never will. But as the person asking for forgiveness, you can’t “simply press rewind” and things will be they way they once were no matter how bad you would like them to.  Stephin Merritt’s snarky lyrics take on the persona of the one burned, and his stance can be either an anthem for moving on or a eulogy for a relationship (depending one what side of the forgiveness fault-line you stand).

 

62. “Waterfall”

Fresh & Onlys

The Fresh & Onlys are time travelers, but instead of going to the past, they’ve come to us from the 60s, bringing with them a sound that has been long forgotten. Amazingly, a song like “Waterfall” grows out of the oldies, yet sounds like nothing else on the radio.  This is the type of song that would lead Marty McFly to say, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your grandparents loved it.”

 

61. “Below the Hurricane”

Blitzen Trapper

At first this seems like a beautiful little folk song, but halfway through the band kicks it up a notch with Doobie Brother’s persona that is sweetened with a couple drops of harmonica.

60. “I Learned the Hard Way”

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

The only thing I don’t like about this song is the fact that she never defines exactly what this guy did to turn her into such a bitter old maid.

 

59. “Mr. Peterson”

Perfume Genius

This eerie song tells the story of a teacher, Mr. Peterson, leaving a note on a student’s paper telling them to meet him at a certain time and place. For some reason, the narrator meets up with the teacher, smokes weed with him, and possibly has sex with him (although this event is only inferred).  When the teacher goes on to kill himself, the narrator doesn’t necessarily hold a grudge toward him. Instead, the speaker hopes that Mr. Peterson can find a place where he’s wanted, even if that place be hell.

So yeah, this songs kinda depressing.

 

58. “Moves”

The New Pornographers

After their lackluster 2007 release “Challengers”, I’d kinda written The New Pornographers off.  It just seemed like their sound had run its course and had no where else to go.  But on their latest release, “Together”, the band has found new ways to eek a little more life out of their collective, especially on a song like “Moves” that amps up their classic sound with a driving orchestral addition.

57.  “Suffering Season”

Woods

I made the mistake this summer of defining Woods as the next Neil Young. The falsetto vocals do conjure up images of Sir Neil, but a song like “Suffering Season” shows the band is influenced by many other voices of the past (possibly the Mamas and the Papas?).

56. “Girlfriend”

Ty Segall

In just two minutes, Ty Segall will have you singing along.  That has to be some type of record.

55. “Favourite Food”

Tokyo Police Club

Getting old stinks, a point this song pounds into the ground.  Not only have I had to face the facts that I’m no longer young, but my parent’s aging has become apparent, a notion that scares me.  When the lyrics say “cause it’s sweet getting old” followed by “Let the hospital be your home”, I can’t help but feel that Tokyo Police Club are being morbidly ironic. I would like to believe that there is some hope hidden within the metaphors of this riveting song, but I can’t seem to find them.

54. “Written in Reverse”

Spoon

With all that screaming and punching of piano keys, something must have really pissed Britt Daniels off. But unlike the Incredible Hulk, you’ll like Britt when he’s angry.

53. “Relief”

Sam Amidon

I really should start listening to some R Kelly.  A couple of years ago I couldn’t quit listening to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s cover of R. Kelly’s “The Word’s Greatest”.   This year Sam Amidon, who is known for his modern interpretations of classic folk songs, switched his routine by taking R. Kelly’s “Relief” and giving it a more classic ambience. On second thought, I’ll just stick to people covering R. Kelly.

52. “POWER”

Kanye West

Even though it’s the third track on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, “POWER” is the introduction to the Shakespearan tale found on this album.  In it, Kanye portrays a man dealing with the struggles of being in power. At times he seems arrogant and aloof, but near the end of the song the listener begins hearing a man realizing that the one thing he doesn’t have power over is himself.  By the time the outro arrives, the speaker is standing on a ledge envisioning himself jumping, saying, “This would be a beautiful death”.

Oh, and did I mention it samples King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”?

51. “He Would Have Laughed”

Deerhunter

A lot of great musicians died in 2010 (Captain Beefheart, Ronnie James Dio, Mark Linkous), but the most devastating loss in my view was the death of Jay Reatard simply because Jay had so much left to create, so must potential.  Being friends with Jay, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox wrote “He Would Have Laughed” in dedication to the lost genius.  I’m not sure if the song is necessarily about Jay with its abstract lyrics, although there is something there within the lyrics “Where do all my friends go?” and “What did you want to be?”.  I think the connection to Jay’s life is found within the music its self, with the slow progression that eventually goes into a euphoric swell, but then, just like Jay’s life, the song just suddenly stops. Fuck.

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1.Road Trip 2008, Day 1-2: WWJKD?

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

I was sitting on my parent’s deck, enjoying the intermittent glow of the Iowa lightning bugs and the smell of brats on the grill when my mom came outside with the phone in her hand.

“I think it’s Paul,” she said as she handed it over. Paul is my eccentric friend I met my junior year in college at Northern Iowa. Just a goofy little freshman wrestler at the time, crazy Paul kept my roommate Tony and I entertained with his juvenile antics. Of course, our constant goading and assistance in the debauchery department didn’t help matters. Those were great times, but unfortunately he transferred the next year to some community college in Kansas.  I don’t know whether he left because he became homesick for his western Nebraska hometown or if it had something to do with failing most of his UNI classes (I take some fault in his failure, always urging him to skip class so we could play “Mario Kart” or watch “Men In Black” the cartoon).

Instead of receiving his MBA from UNI, Paul got his MIB.

He would go on to attend four different colleges in four different states. After an eight year college career that resembled that of John ‘Bluto’ Blutarsky, Paul finally graduated the spring of 2008 with a degree in History and Spanish, hoping to become a teacher/wresting coach. His monumental graduation is what prompted the phone call on that calm summer night in mid-June.

“Dude, when are we going on this road trip? I finally graduated. We have to celebrate.” Since meeting Paul in 1999, he had been bothering me about taking a road trip through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. Two of those summers we weren’t able to take the trip due to Paul serving jail time for one of his many crimes: stealing cars, streaking, and of course a multitude of DUIs. These drunk driving excursions also led to several summers with no license, which would have resulted in driving the entirety of our road trip. Other summers I turned his master plan down due to prior plans or a fear of what unpredictable Paul would do. One summer I even passed up the opportunity to see Neil Young at Red Rock’s because I wanted to attend the wedding of Bobbi Bahr, a former high school classmate. To this day Paul curses, “I can’t believe you missed Neil Young for fucking Barbie’s wedding!”

Now that he had finally graduated from college, he found it absolutely necessary that this road trip come to fruition. He grabbed my interest by suggesting we visit micro-breweries along the way and go to a few concerts if possible (the key to my heart comes in a pint glass). These both enticed my nomadic side, but I still questioned whether he could actually afford the trip. I knew he owed Dana College $4000 dollars since he didn’t get financial aid his final semester, and I was privy to his mounting credit card debt, meandering just below the $10,000 dollar range. How could he ever afford a road trip with the outrageous gas prices?

I tried calming excited Paul down, saying, “Yeah, we can go, I just don’t want to make it too long. Maybe we should just hang around Colorado for a week or something, that way gas doesn’t kill us.” This was my nice way of saying, “You’re broke dude.”

“I want to go to Montana though! Montana!  Don’t worry about money, I just got paid $3000 dollars for being a lab rat.”

“What are you talking about?” I knew he wasn’t bluffing as images ran through my head of Loreal products being poured into Paul’s eyes.

“Yeah, I had to take Alzheimer pills for like two weeks and they monitored me and stuff. I’m good to go on money now. We can split the gas right down the middle; I’m not going to mooch off you or anything.”

"Now where did I put my razor..."

As we continued talking, I thought about how he should be using the lab rat money to pay off some of the money he owed. What was he thinking – a road trip amidst all this debt? Plus, being a newborn college graduate, shouldn’t he be using this time to find a job? I spent my entire first summer out of college lost in a sea of job fairs and applications.

I would have pointed these common sense ideals out to Paul if I knew I wouldn’t come across as a preachy douche. I told him I was all in for a road trip but reiterated the fact that driving to Montana may be a bit much. He asked me to keep thinking about it and we’d make a decision in a couple weeks when July arrived. I was off the hook for the moment, but I knew he wouldn’t forget about this trip; not with Montana dreams running through his head.

A few days later, he sent an email featuring a list of all the bands we could possibly see in Colorado and all the surrounding states. As I skimmed the list, I came to a sudden stop when I saw a name in the Montana section: The Dodos. Was this a ruse to get me to go with him to Montana? I had been raving to Paul about the greatness of the latest Dodos album “Visiter” for the past few months. To see if I was being had, I went to The Dodos MySpace and lo and behold, there it was:

July 4th- Bozeman, Montana at the VFW

I read it over and over again in shock. Dodos…Montana….VFW….4th of July…it was too good to be true. I looked up how many miles it would take to get to Bozeman from Omaha and the 1,000 miles didn’t settle well with me. I began to think about how we would pay for gas, which brought back thoughts of Paul’s money situation. Going to Montana and then down to Colorado would suck his lab rat money dry. What should a good friend do: look out for his pal by giving him advice on managing his money or aid his financial demise by joining him on a cross-country road trip? Is a true friend there for support or to join in on the irresponsible fun?

I mulled over this issue for another week. At one point, I wondered what my hero Jack Kerouac, the ultimate Bedouin, would do? WWJKD? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Paul is just like the character Dean Moriarty in “On the Road”, an athletic car thief who spent time in prison, has a mind jam packed with outlandish ideas, and is fascinated by raw, organic music that tests the limits (jazz in Moriarty’s time). Throughout the book, many of the characters around Moriarty find him offensive, rude, and mostly just trouble. But Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter-ego, loves Moriarty and his harum-scarum ways.

Sal could have told him it was time to grow up, settle down, and find a real job. But he didn’t, no matter what page of the book you are on. No, Paradise admired his childlike wonderment with the world so much that whenever Moriarty showed up on his doorstep with a big road-trip in mind, Paradise threw his writing to the wayside and joined his wild friend on another joy-ride.

Paul didn’t need me to be his mentor; he needed me to be a friend willing to hit the road without worrying about what lies ahead.

This realization came to me on July 1st, which meant we had little time to reach Bozeman, Montana by the 4th. I called Paul and let him know I was in on the Montana trip, but that we would have to heading out Thursday in order to reach Bozeman in time for The Dodos show. He was ecstatic. I figured out I could pay for the trip with the $600 dollars I got from my tax refund (Paul insisted the entire trip that I thank George W. for each beer I drank), and another $600 dollars from Paul’s friend Mando who bought my electric guitar. I knew with Paul’s lab rat money, we were both set.

"Beers are on me boys! Just put it on my tab."

The next morning I headed to Blair, Nebraska to pick up my comrade. We had planned to use the day for preparations, buying the necessary food and supplies. Once we arrived in Omaha, I took Paul to his friend Lindsey’s apartment where he planned to load my I-Pod with some of his choice cuts (Judas Priest and ACDC?!). After dropping him off I weaved through Omaha traffic to the Honda dealership to get an oil change. Then I had to go return to South O to pick Paul back up.  By the time we were at the grocery store searching for the granola aisle, I was fed up with all the driving and aimless wandering; I was ready to hit the road.

“This sucks dude. Let’s just leave now. We can get supplies as we go. I’m sick of all this traffic,” I complained.

“All of the camping food is going to cost more as we get closer to Montana. I’m ready to head out now too, but we have to get everything prepared.” These were wise words from a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants type of guy, but I couldn’t take it any longer.

“I know…I just hate the anticipation,” I conceded.

“Dude, it’s like ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, you know, when there is like a hundred pages on the meeting in Rivendell.”

“Yeah, I hate that fucking part! I’ve never actually read past that part,” I scowled.

“Ahh!  You’re KIDDING! You’ve never even actually read the rest of Tolkien’s masterpiece?! YOU suck. Wow. That’s embarrassing. The entire Rivendell scene is there to set up the rest of the book. Right now, we are in Rivendell. We must prepare before heading out on our quest,” Paul answered annoyed. I didn’t respond. I guess I prefer The Hobbit with its simple premise of a treasure in a mountain. The dwarves arrive, sing a little song about a dragon, and they’re off. Simple, quick, painless.

By the time we did all of our shopping at various stores, we got back to Blair around 10 p.m. It was then that I realized I had forgotten my phone at Lindsey’s. Damn it! Paul called her up and she said she’d bring it over in the morning.

Completely exhausted from the day, I laid down on the couch, ready to pass out. Just as I was slipping into dream-land, the door to Paul’s apartment flew open, and a sweaty, stout little man with long greasy blond hair and a creepy moustache came bounding through the entry way like a Kramer stand-in, holding a giant can of Old Milwaukee.

In a crackly bark he shouted, “Where’s Paul?”

I sat up like a bolt. The room suddenly reeked like alcohol and cheap cigarettes. Why was there a strange homeless man in Paul’s apartment? Before I could answer, Paul walked out from his bedroom.

“Hey Gale! What’s up man!” Paul knew this guy? Before I could comprehend what was going on, the two had a conversation, none of which I understood, and then the homeless dude was gone.

“What the hell? You let that guy just walk through your door?! He could steal all your crap.”

“Nah, Gale’s a good guy. He lives upstairs and likes to stop by to hang out and drink a few beers,” Paul said as if it was commonplace.  I didn’t feel like arguing, but I did make it a point to lock the door after Paul went to bed. I knew better than to try understanding what had just occurred; Paul has always befriended a strange cast of characters (me included). I quickly fell asleep, cranky and drained from the long day of preparation. I still think Rivendell sucks.

The next morning Lindsey arrived with my phone bright and early, a sign that our day would be much better than the one prior. I started packing up the car while Paul cooked breakfast, when the door crashed open once again. Gale came stumbling in, now holding a giant can of Natural Light. “Wherez Pul?” he howled. He was still drunk or drunk again, not sure which. Without hesitation, Paul welcomed him in and sat talking to the belligerent fool for a while, even offering him a blueberry smoothie.

Gale took a seat next to Lindsey on the couch and began touching her hair. He whispered to her in a gravelly voice, “I like your hair…don’t ever cut your hair…I like loooong hair…it’s bootiful.” She smiled politely and scooted away from him. Like a four year old, his attention quickly shifted to our luggage. “Whar are ya goin Pul?”

Lindsey smiled wryly and said, “Him and Andy are going to Brokeback Mountain.”

“HA HA HA HA (cough cough) HA HA HA! BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN! HA HA HA!” I could hear the phlegm curdling in the back of his throat. Gale then stumbled toward the kitchen to kid Paul about Brokeback Mountain when he caught sight of me looking at him with both horror and disgust.

“What happ’nd to yer head? Where is yer hair? HA HA HA! (cough cough)” Paul began cracking up at Gale’s observation, which just egged the old drunkard on. “HA HA HA! Why don’t you grow sum fuckin hair man? Ha, ha, (cough, cough) Ha, HA! Shouldn’t he grow some hair Paul?” I put on a fake smile and went outside to continue packing the car.  I didn’t have time for this crazy kook.

I may not have as much hair as Gale (right), but at least mine is clean.

Paul later attempted to make me feel bad saying he thought Gale was a Vietnam vet. He of course had no proof to back up this claim; I think he just based it off the fact that Gale is always wearing 70s era clothing and seems to always be drunk.  If that’s all it took, Andy Dick would fit into the vet category.

After slurping up his smoothie, which dripped all over his already stained white shirt, Gale shouted, “I got something for ya Paul!” Two minutes later he returned with a carton of eggs and a handful of firecrackers. “Enjoy! These are for your trip to Brokeback Mount-tin, hehehe.” Paul tried explaining that we couldn’t take the eggs with us, but the lush didn’t understand and left feeling proud of his random act of kindness.

When he finally left it was almost 10 a.m. “Let’s get going!” I said in frustration.

“Okay, okay, okay!” Paul responded, setting the dishes into the sink. After filling the cooler with ice, we threw it in the back of my car and finally took to the highway. Our trip had begun. We had already hit a few bumps in the road, but I knew the perfect remedy for getting our trip rolling on the right foot: The Magnetic Field’s classic album “The Charm of the Highway”.

Soon the smooth baritone voice of Stephin Merritt filled the car as smiles crept onto our faces. With lyrics like “The world is a Motor Inn in the Iowa highway slum” and “Lonely highway, only friend, You’ve got me to keep you warm again”, I knew I had made the perfect musical choice. When “Sunset City” began thumping out the speakers, Merrit was singing for fools like us, throwing caution to the wind and hitting the road just for the hell of it:

Well I don’t care what people say
Life is too short to hang around
So I stay so long in a place
And then move on to the next town

And in the morning I’ll be gone
For other towns and other lives
I’ll catch the first train, bag in hand
And I won’t miss you, and you won’t cry

Oh Sunset City
I’ve got to see the world
Don’t hold me too tightly
Don’t whisper my name

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