When ultra-prolific musician and NPR darling Stephin Merrit announced late last year that his latest project with The Magnetic Fields would contain, in honor of his 50th birthday, a song for every year of his life, I looked askance on it. It’s a fine gimmick if you can pull it off, but given the fact that Merritt has not only always written all of the Magnetic Fields’ songs, but has three other bands and a solo career also filled with his songs, such a project can quite easily come off as incorrigibly self-indulgent. It is to Meritt’s great credit that
50 Song Memoir (mostly) does not.
Meritt’s been playing with formal constraints on his songwriting on his Magnetic Fields albums for the better part of two decades; 69 Love Songs, the Fields’ artistic breakthrough and spiritual predecessor to 50 Song Memoir, is considered to have kicked off this trend (though I would argue that The Charm of the Highway Strip, enjoying a unifying sense country-tinged melancholia, got there first). This is the first time, though, since 69 Love Songs that the songs’ actual lyrical content has fallen under the purview of the album theme. There’s no way that one man’s life, however interesting, can provide an amount of thematic material even close to that of the generalized concept of “love songs”, but Merritt’ll be damned if he won’t try.
There’s quite a lot to enjoy here. Aesthetically, the autobiographical format is a really interesting conceit because it allows one man’s personal musical history to be charted in an accessible format – you hear echoes of inescapable music trends like the disco on “’76: Hustle 76” and “’79: Rock and Roll will Ruin Your Life”, but also of the development of Merritt’s own projects (put Susan Amway on lead vocals on “’99: Fathers in the Clouds”, and its sparkly, breathy reverb could’ve floated right off either of the first two Magnetic Fields records). The effect is particularly potent if you’re doing a one-sitting listen.
As a vocalist and lyricist, Merritt is at the top of his game. He seems to delight in forcing lines that sound impossibly esoteric and pointy-edged on paper into the smoothest melodic hooks you’ll ever hear:
Nearly fatal renal cysts
Maybe Asperger’s if that exists
Two separate times giardia
-from”’92: Weird Diseases”
The impression of self-indulgence I alluded to earlier is done no favors by Merritt’s insistence on singing lead on every song on 50 Song Memoir. He seems, instinctually, to want to make up for it, because he’s using a lot more double-tracking and bright production to lift himself above the mix, and he’s dialing up the cynical and ironic affectation that’s always been present in even his most heartfelt songs. It’s like he’s taking a step back and daring us to contemplate what it would be like if he really were that big a blowhard. Often it works.
The autobiographical theme, author of many moments of genius, also lead the record to a number of missteps, which generally fall into one of two categories. First of all, constraint is a useful tool for getting ideas flowing, but not so great as an end in itself For all the talk about how the Fields went all Jesus and Mary Chain for Distortion or started every song on i with the letter “I”, any song on those records can be enjoyed in a vaccuum. The gimmick isn’t the source of their appeal. And many of the songs on 50 Song Memoirs are the same way. However, the common theme with the songs that suck is that they don’t make sense in any other context than autobiography: note “’86: How I Failed Ethics”, a smarmily intellectual college-kid rant that any adult would be too embarrassed to relate unless obligated to, and “’06: “Quotes”” a tone-deaf apology of some remarks of his that were construed as racist. A whole year of your life is represented by a song about Judy Garland’s death, but that shit gets a mention? Prioritize, man.
The other way the theme hurts the individual songs doesn’t become clear until you compare it to 69 Love Songs. I didn’t mention this before, but fifty is a lot of fucking songs, Chuck, let alone sixty-nine. Either number is going to necessitate a lot of filler to fit on one album. And the filler on 69 Love Songs knew it was filler. Much of it was brilliant. “Reno Dakota”. “A Cactus Where Your Heart Would Be”. “Love Is Like A Bottle Of Gin”. There were lots of short (>2min) breezy, funny, tossed-off songs that Merritt was wise enough not to devote the full force of his studio magic to.
But because 50 Song Memoir is A Milestone and A Retrospective and Other Grave Music Critic Words, Meritt felt he needed to ditch those intimate little pieces in favor of full arrangements with dozens of instruments that rarely, if ever, go under three minutes. He does this even in cases where the song in question isn’t quite substantial enough to warrant it. A bombastic, string-heavy piece called “’69: A Cat Named Dionysus”, for example, would be my favorite song on the whole album if it had lasted two verses, or maybe even one. The factor by which it overstayed its welcome is enough to make me skip it when it comes on now.
So where does Stephin Merritt go from here? It’s difficult to predict an artistic personality marked by such manic willingness to rewrite his rulebook Is he going to keep experimenting, or do the middle-age thing and settle into a comfortable groove? Is he going to dissolve the Magnetic Fields and take up calypso music? Is he going to quit performing entirely and settle into Walkeresque hermitage? His career trajectory has never been a straight line. Each successive album brings us no closer to nailing down what he’s all about; and 50 Song Memoir performs no mean feat in continuing that trend.