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. But having retuned and refocused, Merritt and his grandiose concept has resulted in what may become The Magnetic Fields’ defining masterpiece, surpassing 69 Love Songs thanks to its impeccable pacing and brilliant snapshot storytelling.
The album is, as the title would indicate, 50 songs in length, which spills out over two-and-a-half hours. The concept makes this record something of a spiritual successor to The Magnetic Fields’ most celebrated work, the aforementioned 69 Love Songs. Running just shy of three hours, that album was a masterful turn that dazzled many, but scared more than a few people off due to its length, and 50 Song Memoir seems poised to have the same effect. But I think any music lover would be doing themselves an immense disservice if they elect to not listen to 50 Song Memoir at least once in a single uninterrupted sitting.
Eschewing traditional memoir devices — the listener never learns the names of Merritt’s family members, for instance — 50 Song Memoir tells Merritt’s life story through a series of poignant and seemingly unrelated vignettes. But, just like all of our lives, the seemingly disconnected events of Merritt’s life quickly pile up to somehow make perfect sense and explain how the world received this fascinating artist. The extended journey to get this widescreen portrait of Merritt is more than worth the effort.
The record often replicates the music of a given time as a story telling device, detailing Merritt’s emotional attachment to music. On ‘’76: Hustle 76’, listeners get The Magnetic Fields take on disco (a sentence I naïvely thought I would never write), complete with a firm groove and shimmery background vocals. “Big melodies with simple beats… Lyrics, alas, not for aesthetes,” Merritt sings dryly. The later-in-life track ‘’08: Surfing’ mocks and derides California’s pastime in a hilariously chintzy approximation of Dick Dale’s famous surf tunes. “Surfing, boring people go surfing / In those horrible shorts,” he sings through a monotone that seems to smile and sneer at the same time.
Perhaps the strongest streak of the record is through Merritt’s youth, as he delivers childhood memories that are equally moving and hilarious. On ‘’70: They’re Killing Children Over There’, Merritt sings about his experiences at a Jefferson Airplane concert in which vocalist Grace Slick issued a Vietnam War protest to the crowd, announcing, “I know we’re not supposed to care, but they’re killing children over there.” “Even for my age I was small,” he sings, recalling his young thought process over a foreboding bassline, “I thought she meant a massacre was taking place inside that hall.” This story, in a very personal way, sums up the innocence and naïvety of being a child. For young Merritt, the “over there” described by Slick could be nowhere else but somewhere in the hall.
As the album carries on, one will realize that 50 Song Memoir excludes many of the in-depth details about people and places because it is Merritt’s relationship to art that has had the most profound impact on his life. The joys of curling up with a good sci-fi novel (‘’78: The Blizzard of ‘78’) or discovering the joys of a synthesizer (‘’81: How to Play the Synthesizer’) ultimately seems to connect more with Merritt more than anything else could. The latter song is particularly revealing, as Merritt delves into the intricacies of a synthesizer’s many functions, reciting the various features like an instruction manual. “You can make a thousand sounds never heard before,” he concludes, but only after making the synth “hiss like rattlesnakes,” and “moo like a cow.”
Like any great memoir, 50 Song Memoir never hides from anything, dealing with topics as morose as Merritt’s depression and suicidal thoughts in the 1990s as well as the AIDS crisis. But the five-disc set also infuses even the darkest moments with comedy, such as on ‘’91: The Day I Finally…’. Many of the songs take inspiration from Merritt’s time at the joyous, Sondheim-celebrating gay piano bars of New York, like Marie’s Crisis. His chintzy toy box instrumentation and crowd-participation methods are straight from those hallowed dens of musical appreciation. Played over the darkest memories of his own self-destruction, the listener isn’t quite sure whether to laugh or cry. Such emotional power is hard to praise quite enough.
Ultimately, even if you weren’t previously convinced by the power of song, 50 Song Memoir should sway even the most stubborn of naysayers. However, as if in one last ditch effort to confuse you, Merritt sings on the album’s second-to-last track, “But I’m just a singer, it’s only a song.” At that point, his self-deprecation cannot be mistaken for anything other than a form of emotional self-defense. 50 Song Memoir is proof that the power of music is far-reaching and varied in scope. In fact, despite being shorter than 69 Love Songs, 50 Song Memoir feels leaps and bounds more ambitious than its predecessor. It can make you laugh, it can make you cry, it can make you think, or you can just move your hips, oftentimes all within the same song. 50 Song Memoir is as much the story of Stephin Merritt’s life as it is a love letter to song. It is a certifiable masterpiece and one that music lovers ‘round the world will not soon forget.