Great album titles serve as skeleton keys to deeper understanding of the themes explored in the music. Nevermind echoed the fatalist sigh of Nirvana’s 1991 calling card “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the ennui clouding Kurt Cobain’s emotional thermostat. To Pimp a Butterfly illustrated the war between integrity and celebrity broiling inside of Kendrick Lamar throughout his 2015 opus. In his flagship outfit, the Magnetic Fields, New York singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt has used album titles as ground rules for writing exercises. Charm of the Highway Strip, from 1995, is a song cycle about lives in geographic motion. The beloved 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs is literally 69 love songs; 2004’s i is a string of first-person romance narratives, and 2008’s Distortion bathed a batch of peppy surf-rock nuggets in a thick and forbidding squall of reverb.
This week’s 50 Song Memoir is another clever thematic conceit. As per a pitch put forth by Nonesuch Records president Robert Hurwitz, Merritt was to write a single song about each year of his life, to commemorate his 50th birthday. Hurwitz’s request was sneaky: 69 Love Songs — alongside a trickle of albums from his side projects Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, and the Gothic Archies — is proof the Magnetic Fields mastermind can bang out a couple dozen songs in a year or so, but 50 Song Memoir complicates matters by forcing Merritt, a lover of the three-minute story song and a writer blessed with a novelist’s devotion to fictitious lives and neatly arranged character development, to turn the lens on himself. It was a lofty request and, for this band at this specific moment in its journey, a risky one.
Magnetic Fields albums have grown incrementally and at times gratingly more twee in the 2010s, from cloying teen pop like “The Only Boy in Town” and “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” to drier but still cutesy observational yarns like “We Are Having a Hootenanny” and “The Doll’s Tea Party.” Merritt is a wryly funny, famously terse figure who, even when he feels like giving, still retains a certain air of distance. “I am the least autobiographical person you are likely to meet,” he says in a lengthy interview in the 50 Song Memoir liner notes with friend and collaborator Daniel Handler, better known to fans of Gothic children’s literature as Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events. If Memoir indulged Merritt’s schmaltzier instincts, or revealed a life less intriguing than his formidable gallery of character sketches, it could fail spectacularly.
These worries are assuaged on Memoir’s first side alone, as Merritt turns in “’68: Cat Called Dionysus,” a wistful, tragicomic remembrance of an escaped family pet he loved unrequitedly, set to clattering folk-rock recalling the orchestral bits of the Byrds’ 1968 classic Notorious Byrd Brothers, and “’70: They’re Killing Children Over There,” which sways between psych rock and new wave as kid Stephin is taken to a Jefferson Airplane concert, where he mishears Airplane singer Grace Slick’s onstage protest of child death in the Vietnam War as a warning that a massacre is taking place inside their very concert hall. From there, it’s apparent what 50 Song Memoir intends to accomplish, and what it ultimately delivers: a pointillist sketch of an entire life, rendered in quick, close readings of kooky personal milestones.
Memoir carries Stephin Merritt from ashrams and tropical islands in his mother’s globe-trotting quest for spiritual enlightenment to self-discovery on New York’s gay club scene as disco gave way to new wave and synth-pop under the shadow of the AIDS pandemic; struggles as a starving musician; and romantic pitfalls that complicated his professional triumphs. The man turns out to be just as lively as any of his inventions, whether he’s 8 and giving his mom’s boyfriend hell for writing a song using a lyric sheet he stole from the kid, or 30 and shaken by the notion that he has failed in his chosen profession, or 47 and mourning how quickly his favorite stores and bars close up whenever he spends significant time away from the city.
Memoir’s pillars are change, heartbreak, and a profound love of music. Like a true music obsessive, Merritt’s stories feel inextricably tied to the songs that soundtrack them, so in the early-’80s stretch where he begins to fixate on synth-pop and while away school nights in the gay nightclub and Madonna haunt Danceteria, the instrumentation runs cold and electric, just as the pre-millennial stretch from “’98: Lovers’ Lies” to “’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers” mirrors alt-rock’s stately embrace of cinematic electronics at the time. (See also: Radiohead’s OK Computer, Blur’s 13, and Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump.)
That’s not to say 50 Song Memoir is merely an exercise in the excavation of personal tastes or a successor to music-geek autobiographical-playlist projects like Nick Hornby’s Songbook. Really, it is a celebration of Merritt’s sky-high range as a writer and a player, through the exploration of the circumstances that helped cultivate it. It is the Magnetic Fields’ love letter to itself. (Merritt notes in the interview with Handler that a few of the recordings used for the album actually date back to whatever year they’re meant to commemorate. So “’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers” is a holdover from the shelved soundtrack to a film from that period that also never surfaced, and the intro to the sitar reverie “’87: At the Pyramid” is really lifted from Merritt’s and longtime bandmate Claudia Gonson’s late-’80s sound experiments.)
The sheer audacity of this project is unshakable. The album is two-and-a-half hours long, for starters, and sprawled out over five separate discs in its physical form. There’s too much of it to get through in a single sitting, although your patience is rewarded in hooks and withering turns of phrase. Still, it’s hard to argue that every single one of these tracks is essential, especially bits that appear to circumvent the album’s theme. (“’89: The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo” doesn’t really cover Merritt’s experience of 1989, since it’s really about a pop record from the late ’60s. And technically, the inclusion of certain period pieces originally intended for inclusion in films, like “’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers” and “’10: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” bends the concept a little. But hey, they work!)
The chronological order of the sequencing doesn’t engender much stability either, the way the intentional compositional constraints of the blistering Distortion and 2010’s mostly acoustic Realism facilitated more controlled listening experiences than 69 Love Songs. Memoir gets a little drunk on its own reach sometimes, like on “’91: The Day I Finally …,” which is more intriguing as a lo-fi one-man-band recording experiment than an expression of the rage in its lyrics. More often than not, though, this restlessness feels like a good-faith gesture toward rescuing a long listening experience from the slightest hint of predictability: One minute we’re served an atheist gospel song in “’74: No,” and then we’re shoved through the ringing, washed-out sonics of “’75: My Mama Ain’t” and the disco beat and fake British accent of “’76: Hustle ‘76.”
Stephin Merritt’s deliberate hand as a lyricist helps steady 50 Song Memoir as his collective’s wanderlust as arrangers and instrumentalists keep it in stylistic flux. No matter the subject, the lyric hooks by the end of the second line, and the rhyme is impeccable. The cat song’s kickoff is concise but foreboding: “We had a cat called Dionysus / Every day, another crisis.” The philosophical student/teacher tête-à-tête “’86: How I Failed Ethics” sets up its plot, academic obsessiveness, and extreme attention to detail in less than 30 seconds: “Though majoring in Visual and Environmental Studies, and minoring in History of Sci / I had to retake Ethics from my Mennonite professor, for whom my skepticism didn’t fly.” The album flits between storytelling that lets the absurdity of a situation do all the talking and personal writing that obscures names and locations, selling the bare emotion an incident provokes ahead of any formal details. “’04: Cold-Blooded Man” passionately wishes the worst for an ex-boyfriend, losing no efficacy for never explaining why.
50 Song Memoir is just as incisive with melody as with words. If you’re a 69 Love Songs diehard pondering the value of wading through another four-dozen Merritt tunes, know that this set is a few degrees more daring in its melodic composition and also in the singer’s delivery of it. (The latter is a gift, since the album’s first-person-narrative conceit ostensibly prevents lead vocals from any of the band’s other more limber singers.) The lead on the polyamorous “’93: Me and Fred and Dave and Ted” is both beguilingly offbeat and surprisingly catchy, as is the sparse, dubby Young Marble Giants nod “’85: Why Am I Not a Teenager.” The vocal affectations on the album’s dance tunes are a blast as well. Check the too-excited acid house homage “’97: Eurodisco Trio” or the rigid, instructional “’81: How to Play the Synthesizer” as well as sporadic nods to British synth-pop singers like Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan and Ultravox’s John Foxx. The album’s production is just as audacious and varied. Stepping out of 69 Love Songs into 50 Song Memoir feels like slipping out of a favorite house shoe into an elaborately cushioned runner.
The new set isn’t out to dethrone the Magnetic Fields’ signature album, though. We’re here for Merritt on Merritt, finally, definitively, for our edification as much as his. The project’s enduring value to its creator is laid bare in the closing-stretch tearjerker “’14: I Wish I Had Pictures,” where he regrets not taking more photographs in his youth, because “all these old memories are fading away.” Eventually he decides that these songs will have to suffice. 50 Song Memoir is a chance for Merritt to nail his memories down in an indelible document, a delightful flip through the untold back pages of one of rock’s most singular voices, and, all in all, the best damned Magnetic Fields album in the last ten years.