To some ears, pop music is inherently facile and unambitious. Even the most adventurous pop music tends to operate under certain restrictions, rarely daring to stray away from maintaining the quality of being succinct and melodic no matter how unorthodox the underlying chords, how jagged the meter, how clever the lyrics, or how varied the instrumentation. Stephin Merritt, the creative force behind the indie darling outfit that is the Magnetic Fields, has offered no exceptions. In fact, his songs and arrangements unrelentingly typify tunes which stretch as far as they can go without losing their qualities as, well, pop songs. Merritt has spent his near thirty year long songwriting career not only honing his craft, but stretching it over dozens of genres, probably hundreds of instruments, and a wide variety of thematic concepts.
Beginning with 1994’s The Charm of the Highway Strip, nearly every Magnetic Fields’ album is built around a concept, be it musical or thematic. Famously, there’s 1999’s 69 Love Songs which wears its concept on its sleeve, taking the form of a three hour long triple album. Coming well after the turn of the century, 2004’s i aimed to include only songs that start with the letter “I” with the added caveat that its track list would run in alphabetical order. Then there are the musically conceptual albums Distortion (2008) and Realism (2010), the former tackling noise pop and the latter aiming for an acoustic, folky sound, both unified in adamantly avoiding synthesizers, something of a musical staple in Merritt’s music since the beginning of his career. After 2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea, intended to be a return to form by bringing the synthesizers back, Merritt went quiet for a long three years until his 50th birthday rolled around, when he began to write songs for his latest conceptual undertaking, 50 Song Memoir, an autobiographical album where he lovingly pens one song to each year of his life.
Released March 10 on Nonesuch Records, 50 Song Memoir features the usual Magnetic Fields’ lineup with Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, John Woo, and Shirley Simms, and also brings in a number of additional collaborators as Stephin is wont to do. In addition to the usual synthesizers and stringed instruments, it features a colorful array of instruments (not uncommon for a Magnetic Fields album) including a dulcimer, a musical saw, a Stroh violin, an angklung, and an Omnichord. Merritt, as per usual, handles the production, bringing along the help of Thomas Bartlett, who also contributes a considerable amount of instruments to the album’s already vibrant musical landscape, and Charles Newman, a longstanding engineer and co-producer for the band since 1999. Its sprawling 150 minute length spans over five discs which contain ten songs each, clearly conveying the concept of each disc representing one decade of Merritt’s life, albeit it a bit of a pain for those who buy physical, as five CDs is considerably more expensive than two or three CDs would be (and heaven forbid someone want a copy of this one on vinyl). The benefit of splitting up the album into five CDs is that it’s quite an approachable listen, because the listener can easily take it this album one decade at a time, so to speak. What’s better is each CD roughly runs at a very palatable 30 minutes on average. Such is the approach I took in listening and taking notes on this record, and such is the approach I’ll take in reviewing it. With that said, let’s dive in.
The first disc captures the first ten years of Merritt’s life, which happens to be what seems to be a very eventful childhood. It cleverly captures his parents’ wanderlust in “Wonder Where I’m From”, tells a heartfelt tale about a family pet called Dionysus in “A Cat Called Dionysus,” recalls a Jefferson Airplane concert in “They’re Killing Children Over There,” and paints the naivety of a young child’s idyllic thoughts before biting back with the skeptical views he held at a young age on the folky “No.” The first disc starts quite strong, and the melodies found in “Come Back as a Cockroach,“ “Judy Garland,” and “I Think I’ll Make Another World” are some of the finest hooks I’ve personally found in a Magnetic Fields album since the turn of the century, and they’re all packed with their own unique touches, like the childlike percussion on “Come Back As a Cockroach.” This disc left me feeling very positive by the end of the record, in spite of a very sour ending in “My Mama Ain’t” with off putting lead vocals that are awfully difficult for my ears to accept. The more middling tracks like “Eye Contact and It Could Have Been Paradise” are still enjoyable and glide by very easily, which leaves this disc as a strong starting point. It’s not without its weaknesses, but it’s palatable, balanced, thematically cohesive, and the shortest disc to boot.
Disc 2 focuses much of its efforts on capturing the world that Merritt found himself in during his years as a teenager and a young adult, dedicating songs to disco on the earworm that is Hustle 76, and the rise of synthesizers in popular music on “How to Play the Synthesizer.” That’s not to say the album is bereft of personal songs, with the vitriolic “Life Ain’t All Bad “whose chorus is like “Hey Jude”‘s extremely spiteful cousin who has been deeply wronged by a faceless evildoer, and “Happy Beeping” which seems to recall one of his mother’s boyfriends and his disdain for Merritt’s synthesizer music. Musically, most of this disc maintains the pattern found in disc 1 with numerous strengths such as “Life Ain’t All Bad,” “London By Jetpack,” and “Happy Beeping.” However, its conclusion contains the opposite problem disc 1 had; where disc 1 had a strong penultimate track and a weak finisher, disc 2’s “Danceteria!” strikes me as one of the album’s weakest showings but it closes very strong with “Why I Am Not a Teenager,” an upbeat synth affair with the lovely addition of an accordion and an excellent hook. This disc is the longest running of the five (although not by much, clocking in at just under 32 minutes), but its strengths are numerous and its one low point is held off until right before the end, which left this disc feeling satisfying individually and promising as a continuation of a very long record.
Moving onto the third disc, we encounter, for the first time, a scant number of standout tracks and quite a few tracks that rub me the wrong way. Although it starts extremely strong with a subdued but melodic and witty “How I Failed Ethics,” the psych-tinged “At the Pyramid,” and the irresistibly catchy “Ethan Frome,” it begins to fall off. “The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo,” with its vocal delivery and trippy circus arrangement, sounds like a 1967 Frank Zappa b-side, which isn’t terribly unfortunate as a fan of Zappa but at the same time is not quite what I look for in a Magnetic Fields tune. Following that is “Dreaming in Tetris,” a well layered synth affair with lots of fun details in the mix including a gradual accelerando, but lacking the typically strong lyrical showing. Capping off the album’s brief string of weaker showings is “The Day I Finally…” which, although succeeding in capturing what seemed to be a tumultuous year in Merritt’s life, doesn’t really strike me musically, being an uncomfortable blend of a showtune with lofi bedroom pop. The album picks back up, albeit gradually, with the solid but not outstanding “Weird Diseases” and “Me and Fred and Dave and Ted,” the latter being a ukulele-led tune coyly telling of an early ‘90s love affair. Bringing the album back to the quality it started with comes “Haven’t Got a Penny,” a track very much reminiscent of the Magnetic Fields’ ‘90s work with its distinctively primitive synth tones and Claudia Gonson’s vocals, not to mention an absolutely blissful chorus. Despite its strengths, the spottiness of this disc worried me into thinking the album may begin to fall off.
Thankfully, it doesn’t. In fact, it only gets better. Disc 4 kicks off with the dire “I’m Sad!” which wears its rather on-the-nose lyrical approach well and includes a beautiful bridge and showcases Merritt’s identifiably untrained bass vocals. After a middling second track in “Eurodisco Trio,” this disc really slaps everything that preceded it upside the head, with a very long string of the finest material I’d heard up to this point. Beginning at “Lovers’ Lies” with its tender, warm arrangement including echo-y drums, plucked strings, and a beautiful cello underneath it all, and ending at “Be True to Your Bar,” a bittersweet love letter to the bars that Merritt has said in interviews and in the 2010 documentary “Strange Powers” he’s always been fond of writing within, complete with a singalong chorus that perfectly captures the image of bar-goers chanting its mantra. This string of strong is strongly and beautifully reminiscent of the best material that Merritt drummed up during the Magnetic Fields’ mid-to-late ‘90s peak. Each individual song stands out, but this disc feels all the better to listen to all at once thanks to this long string of outstanding cuts which genuinely transports me to the late ‘00s when I first got into the Magnetic Fields and their music sounded so unique and beautiful to me. Following this string is another outstanding track in “The Ex and I,” and the fact that it felt like a slight downgrade to the songs which preceded it speaks only of their strength rather than this track’s weaknesses; its rather minimal arrangement builds beautifully and gently, culminating in its wordless bridge which introduces a rare Merritt falsetto. The following track, “Cold-Blooded Man,” ups the ante once more, bouncing the chorus between Merritt and Gonson a la “69 Love Songs” on top of an extremely warm, spacey synth arrangement jam packed with minute details throughout the mix. Concluding the album on a more subdued note, “Never Again” works well as a closer, bringing the bombastic and layered musical landscapes found in the preceding tracks back, stripping everything down to just a few synths and a beautiful melody. You couldn’t tear the smile off of my face during the running length of this disc, and that’s not an exaggeration. Going into disc 5, I only expected things could go downhill after such an outstanding showing.
Lo and behold, I was completely wrong. Despite a bit of a shaky start in the instrumentally dour “Quotes” with its melody that sounds rather reminiscent of “The Things We Did and Didn’t Do,” and the dull surf rock throwback “Surfin’” which cleverly aims to be a foil to the identically titled Beach Boys cut from ’62 by attacking surfing and those who practice it through a whirling, dense synth arrangement. Thankfully they’re separating by the beautiful “In the Snow White Cottages,” a very gentle and patient affair with a warm picked guitar and chimes calmly ringing throughout. In a similar vein, “Till You Come Back to M”e is a slow, minimal piece featuring only a piano, synths, and extremely quiet horn parts, which musically fits quite well the heartbreaking lyrics. This disc briefly starts to feel more chipper beginning with the tender and optimistic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” with its shimmery jangle and jaunty keyboard jovially driving each chord throughout the song, before transitioning to “Stupid Tears,” a downcast slow burner with its reverbed synths and gentle plodding piano. From there on, this disc pulls out all the stops to ensure a strong, confident finish. “You Can Never Go Back to New York,” bouncy and playful both lyrically and musically, evokes the vibrant aesthetic of the most carefree songs Merritt joyously included on ‘90s opuses such as “Holiday” or “69 Love Songs.” The cleverly written “Big Enough for Both of Us” spares no romantic tenderness in slyly slipping in sexual imagery in not-so-subtle ways. With closer “Somebody’s Fetish,” an equally heartfelt and positive tune wrapped in innuendos, Merritt bravely bookends “I Wish I Had Pictures,” which is without question his most tender, well composed song since “69 Love Songs,” and perhaps beyond. Achingly wishing his art took the form of a painting or a play so that he could capture his memories accurately and permanently, rather than the form of a song which he claims “is only a song”, the memories he recalls as “probably wrong” as he wistfully chants that “all these old memories are fading away.” It’s an extraordinarily personal song by anyone’s standards, but particularly for Merritt, as he tends to stray from getting too personal. The final movement of this disc, and this album as a whole, is a simply outstanding string of tracks, cleverly arranged to ensure a rollercoaster, layer upon layer of clashing emotions which brings the sense of variety of this album, and Merritt’s magnum opus 69 “Love Songs” to a logical and concise conclusion.
50 Song Memoir started as a challenge of sorts, as the president of Nonesuch Records, Robert Hurwitz, suggested to Merritt that he should undertake this bold endeavor. Despite the driving force of the album being a seemingly contrived dare and a reasonable number of somewhat low effort cuts, the long running length of this record flows quite naturally. Merritt said in an interview that he’s “the least autobiographical person you are likely to meet,” and that he’s unlikely to write any more “true” songs after this record. If those statements are taken at face value, it’s all the more impressive that he pulled so much outstanding material out of his hat, and it’s a little bittersweet knowing we may not get any more songs that balance outstanding compositional quality with deep emotional resonance like “Be True to Your Bar” or “I Wish I Had Pictures,” but personally, I’m extremely grateful for what’s been delivered on this record. If Merritt hangs up his (brown) hat after this one, I can confidently say that he’s penned more quality tunes in under thirty years than some of the finest pop musicians penned in their entire lifetime, and that’s a man whose life is worth dedicating an entire album to. Good thing he already did it.