Review Summary: This album is the deepest form of voyeurism; Merritt shares all his memorable life experiences from adolescence to the present with every influential and detrimental moment included.
Five years to the month since The Magnetic Field’s previous album and about eighteen years since fan-favorite, magnum opus and equally as ambitious project, “69 Love Songs”. The Magnetic Fields is a moniker for the mastermind behind the name: Stephen Merritt. Though TMF is Merritt’s most popular group, he has several other bands and collaborations, including The Gothic Archies whom he works with fiction writer, Daniel Handler (who has also provided accordion to Merritt’s work from time to time). The Magnetic Fields have been in the music business for almost 30 years and have helped pioneer and influence many independent genres and DIY artists. Stephen Merritt has recently turned age fifty and rather than undergoing a midlife crisis, Merritt decided to put his own life under scrutiny and examine his fifty years of existence in an attempt to extract meaning and inspiration. The result is the aptly titled, “50 Song Memoir”, which indeed includes fifty songs, each one detailing a different year of Merritt’s life and contains lyrics and music to accompany each story.
Similarly to, “69 Love Songs”, “50 Song Memoir” is a focused and challenged creation that demands Stephen and the listener to extract meaning from what is essentially fifty experiences through Merritt’s entire lifetime. From early memories of rejection from his cat, Dionysus, because he would innocently put the family cat in his toy chest, to teenage years of existential crisis and resentment of his absent father, Merritt sonically sketches out many events with different perspectives as he grows, learns and ages. Several songs on the first disc, his first ten years, reveal the more innocent age of the narrator who is portrayed smartly with songs like “Wonder Where I’m From” and “I Think I’ll Make Another World”, which are full of curiosity and wonderment. While other tracks like “They’re Killing Children Over There”, “It Could Have Been Paradise” and “My Mama Ain’t” show the darker portion of Merritt’s childhood with an intense Jefferson Airplane performance, rough living situations and tales of his mother’s eccentric-ism.
Disc two immediately changes the atmosphere with synths reminiscent of the 70s, a comedic background vocal chanting, “uh-huh-huh” and the Gothic croon of Stephen dryly recalling the popularity of the “hustle”. “Danceteria!” and “How To Play the Synthesizer” follow suite, the latter details Stephen learning to play the synthesizer with more humorous and witty lyricism. There are also several notable tracks on disc two that are more akin to the indie-folk aesthetic: the cynical, “Life Ain’t All Bad”, the Beirut-sounding, “The Blizzard of ‘78” and the satirical “Rock n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life”.
The next disc, is one of my favorites and more experimental than either of the previous decades, with this decade showing the conception of The Magnetic Fields. Many of the tracks have a plethora of unique sounds and different instruments like the flute, sitar, xylophone, and other devices that meld perfectly together for a successful indie-pop sound, reminding me of the height of the Elephant Six Collective. There’s some great insight to the formation of the band with comical commentary from the man behind the curtain.
For the fourth disc, Merritt slows things down and delivers soulful ballads that Nick Cave would have been performing during the same years illustrated (‘96-’05). Most of these songs bare beautiful and reserved instrumentation with lush orchestration and precision piano/keyboard. There’s a good diversity between sorrowful ballads (“Lovers’ Lies, “Fathers in the Clouds”) and more uplifting pieces (“Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers”, “Have You Seen It In the Snow?”). Merritt also makes reference on the darkly humored, “Be True to Your Bar” about a bar, named St. Dymphna’s, which singer-songwriter Conor Oberst makes reference to on a song of his newest album and features Stephen Merritt in the accompanying music video.
Finally, the last decade of his life’s personal experiences are presented on the last disc (‘06-’15). Personally, this feels like the weakest disc of the bunch, but it doesn’t contain any specific flaw that separates it from the others. Perhaps it’s because it’s so late in the overall experience that it starts to loose it’s luster or, unlike the previous few discs, it’s more a combination of all the styles and genres throughout. None of the lyrical stories on this disc really garnered my attention as much as the other material presented. But again, I really enjoy this decade, just more in a generalized manner, compared to decades like the 60s, 70s and 90s of which I enjoyed specifically for their lyrics and instrumentation. The last track, “Somebody’s Fetish” is a little more comedic than I’d like the album to wrap up with, but it does leave the listener with optimism that there’s someone out there for everyone and perhaps even Stephen has found someone to reciprocate love with.
What hinders the album from being a better overall experience? Is is the overwrought length? No, in fact the album, despite being five discs, is only two and a half hours. All the material could be condensed into two discs nicely, but is thematically divided into decade periods. Though there is a hefty track-list of 50 songs, or memoirs, each song is averaged to be three minutes, with few tracks reaching four minutes. This makes it so no one song overstays it’s welcome and can still have enough time to flourish. No, what keeps this album from being perfect is that unfortunately, while a large majority of these songs are thought-provoking, memorable and fun, it is a fifty song album, thus not every track will stick with you and I’d say there’s at least five songs I could do without. However, by denying those songs, I’m losing out on an experience, an entire year of Stephen’s life. “50 Song Memoir” might strike you as gimmicky, but Stephen Merritt pulls of an exhilarating indie classic, one that grows and expands over time. Not many artists take on such daunting tasks, but Merritt has condensed his entire lifetime into a single, coherent and compelling package.