Many will wish this witty summation of a life had more consistently enduring songs.
Maybe Stephin Merritt needs ironic distance. Throughout his prolific career, he’s never written a truly autobiographical song before (clarifying re: “Papa Was a Rodeo” that he wasn’t dating a guy named Mike at the time). On his 50th birthday, he began to write 50 of them. The results are mixed; this is no sprawling masterpiece like 1999’s 69 Love Songs, which Merritt admits this project answers. But it’s still Merritt, and if his batting average isn’t up to his post-69 work, there’s still plenty of good stuff.
In a booklet that reprises a conversation with Daniel Handler that began in 1999, Merritt admits that when he made 69 Love Songs, he couldn’t get arrested professionally. Since then, Merritt has sought smaller scale organizational principles for the Magnetic Fields—songs that begin with “I,” distorted songs, etc. This time, the concept came from his record label, Nonesuch, which encouraged him to make a five-disc set of autobiographical songs (and not coincidentally offering a pricey five-LP set as a deluxe part of the rollout).
Each of the 50 songs covers a year of Merritt’s life, starting in 1966, when he turned one year old. While Merritt and his fellow musicians use over 100 different instruments throughout the album, he adds further constraints by allowing an instrument to be used a maximum of seven times in the set. It’s a method to create order out of a perhaps chaotic life, but the constraints make the arrangements—and sometimes the lyrics—seem forced in a way that rarely happened on 69.
This problem is compounded by material that’s simply weaker, thanks to a literalness that we never expected or really wanted from Merritt. While in the past he may have more subtly taken on the role of an activist (“When My Boy Walks Down the Street”), here he takes topics head-on. With “They’re Killing Children Over There”— well, you wouldn’t exactly expect Merritt to write a funny song about Vietnam, but humor would have helped such straight-faced lyrics like, “So we went to see the Jefferson Airplane/ Odetta was the opening act.”
Still, each of these five discs has its highlights, and as with 69, they may vary for each listener. Disc one’s first chestnut is “A Cat Called Dionysus,” about the family pet that hated him in 1968. Only Merritt could get away with writing a song about a pet cat without making it seem twee, and it helps that the accompanying melody (and the songwriter’s bass baritone) is fairly brooding. Of “Eye Contact” (for 1972), Merritt notes that he had only recently discovered Sun Ra’s Strange Strings, but despite the outré inspiration and background din, the Andes melodica carries a melody that makes this one of the hookiest songs on the whole set.
Sometimes a sharp lyric sells a throwaway melody, as on “Life Ain’t All Bad” (1977): “You killed my dog you killed my mice/ You made my house a den of vice/ Na na na na/ Na na na You’re dead now…/ Na na na na life ain’t all bad.” This is also the song that teaches you that Merritt once worked on an ice cream truck with an abusive drunk.
The songs grow on you, like the first single “Foxx and I” (1983), about the Ultravox lead singer.
“Weird Diseases” (1992), about epilepsy, is a grim subject with a title that scans so perfectly that it seems Merritt was put on earth just to convert such things into pop songs. It’s followed by “Me and Fred and Dave and Ted” (1993), the kind of uke-heavy pop song that would have fit on 69 Love Songs.
The lyrics and melodies get more endearing more often as the set continues, and there are moments when he strikes the perfect balance of non-fiction and ironic distance. One of the best is Merritt’s 9/11 song, “Have You Seen It in the Snow,” originally written for cabaret act Kiki and Herb. Its gorgeous, wistful melody supports a lyric about the beauty of New York City, never directly addressing the 2001 tragedy but with a shadow hanging over its bittersweet salve.
As Merritt, now 52, crosses his half-century mark, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor. The funniest couplet among these 50 songs may be its closer, “Somebody’s Fetish”: “Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palette/ Some spank the maid and some wank the valet.” Anyone who’s followed the Magnetic Fields over the years will need to hear 50 Song Memoir, but many will wish this witty summation of a life had more consistently enduring songs.