Merritt has always stubbornly refused to follow the rock star handbook, and challenging an audience with 50 new songs makes sense taken in this context.
People are typically divided into three camps when it comes to Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields: they either love his self-referential, acerbically sweet songs, find the musician pretentious and insufferable or they have no idea who he is. To celebrate his 50th birthday, Merritt released the five-disc 50 Song Memoir, devoting a song to each year he has been on this planet. As an album conceit, such an idea is no surprise coming from the guy who put out the much-loved 69 Love Songs back during the swansong of the ‘90s, but mounting a tour supporting so many songs could prove to be an interesting proposition.
Rather than simply play selections from 50 Song Memoir, Merritt decided to play two nights in each city on the tour, 25 songs per performance, where all 50 are covered in order. With no vocals from longtime collaborators Claudia Gonson or Shirley Simms, Merritt would have some heavy-lifting to do.
The stage design featured Merritt on a stool dead center, surrounded by walls that emulated an intimate space like a bedroom. Knickknacks such as tin dollhouses, a stuffed owl and a wooden Dalmatian rested amongst an old synthesizer, a guitar and a ukulele. Though a phalanx of musicians backed up Merritt, they remained mostly out of sight, hidden by the set dressing save cellist Sam Davol who sat stage right. Though it felt odd to have the band obscured, the intimate set of songs is all about Merritt, and he remained the center of attention for the duration of both evenings.
In many ways, Merritt feels like a reluctant frontman, reading his banter from a book of lyrics, festooning himself on a stool, grimacing when a woman shouted something from the audience. One would mistake Merritt’s plugging of his left ear during applause as another of these ticks, but he suffers from a sound sensitivity called hyperacusis, which explains why the set featured nearly no percussion whatsoever.
Fifty songs are a lot to digest, and my wife and I decided to delve deep into 50 Song Memoir before the show, although it appeared that many did not. Surprised laughter often rippled through the audience during the moments when Merritt’s droll humor burst through, assisted by a video screen above the stage that helped with the narrative (even if Merritt suggested in the album’s extensive notes that no narrative exists). These moments helped temper the more melancholy stretches, which came more frequently during the second evening as the adult Merritt suffered his fair share of heartbreak. However, as a result, some of the more beautiful songs came during that second night.
At times, the show felt more like a play than a concert, and Merritt’s interstitial banter, even if read from a crib sheet, helped contextualize the songs. The nights also felt quite brief, as the group played for barely 90 minutes per set. The guy in front of me during the second evening seemed to have no idea the album would be split over two nights and audibly voiced his concern when Merritt announced the show’s end. “Where are the other 20 songs?” he shouted, both confused and unable to do simple arithmetic.
Merritt has always stubbornly refused to follow the rock star handbook, and challenging an audience with 50 new songs makes sense taken in this context. It was a special two nights, likely never to be replicated again beyond this tour, vanishing into the corners of memory, much like the 50 years Merritt has painstakingly written about with this latest album.