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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. Now, the Magnetic Fields return with a record that, like 69 Love Songs, forces Merritt to get focused and inspired. 50 Song Memoir is easily the best gimmick Merritt’s stumbled upon since the turn of the century.
Arranged chronologically with a song for each of the first 50 years of Merritt’s life, 50 Song Memoir is a conceptually satisfying work, spanning five discs and two-and-a-half hours without feeling repetitive or samey. If there’s one thing Merritt has learned over his three decades as a songwriter—besides how to seamlessly insert limericks into songs—it’s how to pace himself on record, keeping his quasi-showtunes from becoming cloying, his jokier ones from turning precious, and his ballads from sounding melodramatic.
Of course, for anyone turned off by the idea of Merritt—an escapist pop descendent of Bacharach and Sondheim—getting all Benji on us, you will be relieved to know that the story of his life sounds a lot like a Magnetic Fields album, and a very good one at that. There are some deeply revealing moments here. The opening songs, in particular, pinpoint the origins of Merritt’s career-spanning themes of placelessness and unrequited love—how they began with his parents’ wanderlust and a childhood cat, respectively. But 50 Song Memoir often takes a less literal route through Merritt’s life. “’76 Hustle 76” illustrates its time period by mimicking the then-inescapable sound of disco. Judy Garland’s death gets its own song, as does the rise of synthesizer music in the early ’80s. For a songwriter who once formulated an entire record around the first-person pronoun, 50 Song Memoir is more selfless than its title indicates. Here, Merritt seems more interested in exploring the moments that mark time—where we’ve lived, who we’ve loved and lost—than tracing his own particular narrative.
As a result, 50 Song Memoir is an immersive, incisive listen, despite its avoidance of traditionally memoiristic details (we never, for example, learn the names of Merritt’s parents, whether he has siblings, what it was like trying to follow-up a breakthrough album, etc). The themes that Merritt addresses over multiple songs become the album’s guiding lights. “All the young dudes of 25/Caught diseases, few survived,” he sings in “’90 Dreaming in Tetris,” before explaining, “We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?” The AIDS crisis influences many of these songs, adding an ominous shadow to the darker tracks and a mournful tone to the love songs.
There’s something jarring about Merritt singing so directly about his fears—even his bleakest work used to come bundled with the naivety of a hopeless romantic. It helps that most of the album sits squarely in Merritt’s musical comfort zones. Like Love at the Bottom of the Sea, 50 Song Memoir draws inspiration from the sounds of each of his records, from the psychedelic synth pop of Holiday to the indie-film-trailer twee of i, even making room for genre exercises in dance music (his Future Bible Heroes records) and surf-rock (Distortion).
By the album’s end, though, the songs begin to lack the cultural context that distinguished the earlier ones, and 50 Song Memoir borders on morphing into just Several More Love Songs. But among these sit some of his finest tracks. “I guess there’d be other fish in the sea/But I don’t want fishes and you don’t want me,” he sings in the exquisite “’05 Never Again.” It’s the exact kind of song that would turn to putty in the hands of a lesser writer, but Merritt knows how to wring it for emotional resonance. In fact, its place near the end of the album almost signals—more than the impact of the breakup—his growing mastery as a songwriter. It suggests that our deepest wisdom can be located in our most personal thoughts. “I wish I had something better to do,” he sings, “But even my own clothes remind me of you.”
Just one song later, Merritt gets a little too specific, showing what the album might have been if he took its title more seriously. In “’06 ‘Quotes,’” Merritt dredges up an old controversy that involved several music critics accusing him of racism. The subject matter has him sounding slightly bitter and self-righteous, but even worse, it simply doesn’t make for a good Magnetic Fields song. Merritt’s work has always been less confessional and more “Things Fitting Perfectly Into Other Things”: you listen to his songs and marvel at how effortlessly he packs his thoughts into verse, one rhyme parlaying into the next. The best of 50 Song Memoir plays to his gifts (“From the time I began, I was mostly vegan,” he boasts in an early song), but with an extra layer of urgency, tied to the task of representing an entire year in a tightly structured pop song. “I am the least autobiographical person you are likely to meet,” Merritt admitted with typically humdrum candor in an interview about the album, “I will probably not write any more true songs after this than I did before.” He’s likely already dreaming up his next project—putting the past behind him and moving on, his catalog 50 songs richer as a result.Share