Odds are that if you are here reading this review, on a website staffed and read largely by self-professed music lovers, you and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields have something in common: you both believe that music can do anything in the world. 50 Song Memoir, which follows each of the first 50 years of Merritt's life one song at a time, is a striking testament to this belief. The record marks a strong return to thematic form for the songwriter who seemed to flail a little bit on the uneven and "no concept" album Love at the Bottom of the Sea from 2012.
Stephin Merritt, in the liner notes to this, his eleventh Magnetic Fields album, says: 'I am the least autobiographical person you are likely to meet.' And thinking about it, that's true. His best-known work to date - feted 1999 album 69 Love Songs - was as much an exercise in explication of the art of the 'love song' as anything more intimate. And, in a sense, the series of concepts that Merritt uses to theme and group his releases (song-titles-beginning-with-the-letter-i, (i), noise music (Distortion), synth trilogies, non-synth trilogies etc) have always served as a means of distancing the musician from the music, an intellectual exercise rather than the kind of tortured confessional that other singer-songwriters might favour.
On his masterpiece 69 Love Songs (particularly with the unbearably moving "Busby Berkely Dreams") Merritt caused us to wonder, take time to consider what was below the surface of his cynical smirk, his winking gestures and punning playfulness. On 50 Song Memoir he appears to promise something like the truth - a brand new song dedicated to and descriptive of each year of his life right through to 2015. It's a gargantuan undertaking and, of course, much less is revealed of Merritt than inquisitive fans might want, yet the record does manage to disarm with its blend of classic comic nihilism and the kind of confessionals that have the power to bring you up short, stunned and staring at the songsmith laid bare - if only for a moment.
Stephin Merritt is a genius.
He can be spoken of in the same breath as Lou Reed, and with good reason: Both artists brilliantly use the forms of popular song in order to say and do something different. And thankfully, Merritt is still with us, right in the midst of things.
I n his years as The Magnetic Fields, US songwriter Stephin Merritt has not shied away from concept. Following sprawling works such as 69 Love Songs, and an album of songs beginning with the letter i, the 52-year-old left-field troubadour has written a life in 50 musical vignettes, whose fun tropes include incorporating seven instruments in seven different combinations. All the possible Merritts are on board, from stentorian intellectual chansonnier to giddy teenage new waver - one whose amused air rarely falters, even when listing painful physical ailments (Weird Diseases), or being misunderstood (Quotes).
E ighteen years after the epic 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt has crafted an autobiography in 50 songs, one for each year of his life. The singer-songwriter rifles through twice that number of instruments as his lugubrious baritone drolly documents pivotal experiences. There is the childhood pain of rejection by a pet ("We had a cat called Dionysus … every day another crisis"), his mother's ghastly taste in men and his suspicions, in '92 Weird Diseases, that he may have Asperger's.
Stephin Merritt has never been afraid to think big, at least as far as his music is concerned, and his ad-hoc group the Magnetic Fields enjoyed their breakthrough with the wildly ambitious 1999 set 69 Love Songs, a three-disc collection featuring, yes, 69 songs about love. While that album bests 2017's 50 Song Memoir by 19 tracks, in nearly all other respects, 50 Song Memoir is a project of even greater scale and scope. Begun as Merritt was celebrating his 50th birthday, 50 Song Memoir finds him embracing pop songs as the medium for an autobiography, with each of the 50 tracks representing a different year in his life.
Evidently, Stephen Merritt is the sort of man who believes in grand musical gestures, and they work - the most extravagant thus far (69 Love Songs) remains his most notorious. How then to celebrate his 50th birthday? Buying a sports car? Taking up pottery? Not our Stephen, he'd rather write a two-and-a-half hour long suite with a song representing each of his years on the planet. It's his most ambitious project too, whereas the remit of 69… allowed for some levity, with charming, skit-like genre exercises balancing the weighty load, each song here feels much more significant.
Following his late-1990s triumph 69 Love Songs , Stephin Merritt began cannily organizing his Magnetic Fields songs. There was 2004's alphabetic i, followed by the genre filters of 2008's Distortion and 2009's Realism . In 2012, Merritt took on a slightly defeatist project--"the concept is there is no concept!"--with Love at the Bottom of the Sea , an album whose lack of thematic unity resulted in a disappointingly uneven listen.