The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt’s “50 Song Memoir” scores a lifetime in verse
“Be Nice or Come Back as a Cockroach” – wise words from a 2-year-old. The Indie pop group The Magnetic Fields released their 11th studio album, “50 Song Memoir,” on Friday. The 50-song album features a song for each year of bandleader Stephin Merritt’s life. He’s now 52, and “Be Nice” commemorates Merritt’s second year on earth.
Merritt championed the idea for writing his memoir in verse to his label’s president. No stranger to massive anthologies of music, this is not that much of a stretch for Merritt. Prolific is not even a generous way to describe his songwriting. Aside from “69 Love Songs,” the record that blew apart the end of the 1990s indie, Merritt has penned soundtracks to books, musicals, movies, and TV shows like “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” as well as many, many albums from a fist full of bands. His output is not just an exercise in kitsch — it’s the earworm equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “50 Song Memoir” is also one of the first times Merritt is singing about himself directly and not the media caricature of Merritt as a lovable curmudgeon.
Performing all 50 songs, which the band is doing on tour now, takes two nights. Sets are at least a couple of hours, each with an intermission, and each features 50 instruments. That’s seven performers with seven instruments each, plus a one-man-band. Animations beam high above the band while Merritt sits in a small house-like set surrounded by instruments and some objects from his life that also play a sonic role in concert.
The record, while very much about Merritt, also tackles the people who have consumed his life: friends, enemies, lovers, teachers, his father, about whom he doesn’t say much, and his mother and her friends, enemies, and lovers. The early tracks of the opus spend their time divided between his beatnik mother and her penchant for communes, and Merritt’s most obvious soulmate, music. Merritt also delves into how he learned to be create, how he created, the sounds that influenced him the humans that helped him along the way. Having lived in more than 20 places before he even formed The Magnetic Fields, this nomadic sensibility influences this mix, hopping from beat to beat.
The influences on Merritt’s music make their stamp early on tracks like “Hustle 76,” “London By Jetpack,” and songs like “How To Play The Synthesizer” start to meld into the more familiar sounds Merritt is familiar for. Melody and complexity come with age. Merritt’s disdain for authority, having suffered loneliness for his intelligence, comes churning out songs in “Dreaming In Tetris,” and tracks like, “Weird Diseases” lay out all the building blocks of what’s to come in the later years.
Queerness and LGBTQ history bleed together in Merritt’s latest work, spanning Stonewall in “Judy Garland,” a pangea of polyamory and Log Cabin Republicans in “Me and Fred and Dave and Ted,” to surviving the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s in songs like “Danceteria,” “Why I’m Not A Teenager,” and “The Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers.”
“Be True to Your Bar,” a song that feels like your own local will break out singing it, is written for the now-gone gay bar Dicks, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The record continues with stories of rejection, a series of confusing heteronormative relationships, having sex with exes, and pining after a cheating partner while playing pinball at a bar called the Eagle.
Love is no stranger to Merritt’s oeuvre and this record is full of love songs, but it’s up to the listener to find them, and see what they mean to you. Some of the softest and sweetest songs of the band’s entire career are featured in Merritt’s autobiography. There’s New York post-9/11 in “Have You Seen It in the Snow,” written for the NYC Cabaret act Kiki & Herb. There’s the death of Elliott Smith, “In the Snow-White Cottages,” and there’s the loss of proof that you made it through the whole thing in “I Wish I Had Pictures.”
Like life, the record is not all cripplingly sad and depressing. Instead, it’s a rollercoaster that ends in what might be the record’s most Magnetic Fields-sounding, jaunty tunes. The final tracks, including “Somebody’s Fetish,” are about settling down with a partner in the shapeshifting beast that is New York, and living everyone’s dream of being lusted after. This is essentially the hottest way to end a memoir. Merritt composed and recorded the song in upstate New York, where VICE News caught up with him at his home and made him laugh once, an absolute score that few can accomplish.