Genre: Indie Pop
Producer: Stephin Merritt, Thomas Bartlett, Charles Newman
Release Date: March 10, 2017
The indie pop group The Magnetic Fields is known for its curious, gimmicky concept albums. Their 2004 album i contained tracks that only started with the initial “I”, and the 2008’s Distortion bathed in 90s noise. The most well-known of these projects is the massive 69 Love Songs, a megalomaniac collection of the titular 69 tracks of various genres and styles, all tied together by a common theme of love. However, if we’re being honest here, despite its clever theme and concept I don’t think 69 Love Songs quite holds up all of its length. Many of the tracks are barely a minute long experiments, ranging from kind of catchy to outright unlistenable.
Because of this, I had an initial prejudices when it came to their new, eleventh studio album 50 Song Memoir, which has a concept very similar to that of 69 Love Songs: the five-disc set contains fifty tracks, each intended to document one year in singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt’s life. Packed in are many childhood memories, lost loves, deaths of loved ones, tragic break-ups, abusive stepdads, failed movie projects, tributes to people who inspired him, and many other events and happenstances throughout his life, from the early sixties to modern day.
The music follows alongside the times; many of the 60s tracks feature vaguely psychedelic folk instrumentation, reminiscent to that of the latter era Beatles; through the 70s the music gradually turns from folk to disco; during 80s the songs become more and more synth-heavy; the synth turns to Marilyn Manson-esque distorted electronic in the 90s. Some tracks, like the delicious, atheistic faux-spiritual “‘74: No”, the sitar-heavy “‘92: Weird Diseases”, and the depressing waltz of “‘05: Never Again” diverge from this pattern, providing variety. As an interesting meta joke some of the tracks documenting years during which the Magnetic Fields released an album sound similar to the albums released: “‘08: Surfin’” features similar heavy distortion as their 2008 album Distortion, and the ukulele-keyboard combo of “‘10: 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea” mimics the style of their 2010 album Realism.
However, the lyrics are often what steal the spotlight. Merritt has an uncanny ability to produce interesting texts from seemingly mundane, sometimes even boring subjects. “‘A Cat Named Dionysus”, which chronicles the tragic love-hate relationship of a house pet and a toddler. “Blizzard of ´78” contrasts the devastating effects of the eponymous storm with the laughably bad band practice session Merritt was having at the time. No matter the subject, Merritt keeps his texts from becoming too whimsical, sentimental or sappy.
Only few of the tracks, like “Hustle 76” and “Foxx and I”, are outright ear worms; most of the album is full of subtle hooks that slowly dig their way into your head upon multiple listens. From the pile of fifty tracks new ones seem to stand out on every new listen. 50 Song Memoir is not an album you put on for a background music of a party; it is something you sit down to concentrate on.
Not every song is a perfect bullseye, but given that most artists can’t have 50 bullseyes even on their Best Of collections, the level of quality here is astounding. It is more of a rule than an exception to see a double album that would work better if trimmed and condensed into a regular one; here Merritt showcases that he can do this fivefold. None of the issues that plagued 69 Love Songs are present here; instead, the result is a fascinating collection of little vignettes that also works as surprisingly insightful look into Mr. Merritt’s life, actually functioning as a memoir of sorts. While it does not offer a thorough biographical look at his history, it paints a concrete, clear image of him as an artist and a human being.