Curl Up With This Stephin Merritt Autobiography
50 Song Memoir is the Magnetic Fields’ ambitious fifty-track album. The concept of this work is of emotional significance to frontman Stephin Merritt, as each track highlights an important moment of each year of his life. Considering his previous album was 69 Love Songs, a fifty-song memoir feels like an appropriate next work to unfold the story behind the Magnetic Fields’ key member.
Each song journeys through a decade — indicated in its title — which subtly influences its quality and style. Starting from “’66 Wonder Where I’m From” and finishing with “’15 Somebody’s Fetish,” the album orders its tracks chronologically, with each one running about three minutes in length. One-hundred different instruments are used personally by frontman Stephin Merritt, giving the majority of the tracks a strong Beirut feel. Merritt also uses his signature Danny Elfman-esque basso profondo.
Songs in the ’60s category reflect on Merritt’s childhood and early upbringing. Sometimes the significant memory of that year is as simple as having a pet cat as shared in “’68 A Cat Called Dionysus,” or in “’69 Judy Garland,” a childhood hero. In the ’70s, the songs and lyrics grow up a little bit with “’70 They’re Killing Children Over There” with lyrics referring to the Vietnam War, whilst also mentioning Jefferson Airplane. This track is dark and mysterious and stands out as one of the more captivating compositions. There’s also a certain lightness with a dance-worthy ode to the Hustle in “’76 Hustle 76,” before Merrit adds more synth and electronic noise, signifying that we’re heading into the ’80s with “’79 Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life” and then “’81 How to Play the Synthesizer.” “’83 Foxx and I” is another standout track with strumming guitar and an actual buildup, which is absent in the majority of the tracks. This one has a Joy Division vibe about it that is both familiar and pleasing to the listener. The stripped-down “’91 The Day I Finally…” is more spoken poetry intonations, as Merritt begins to break into song with, “the day I finally cracked / ’cause my life is a joke,” signifying a midlife crisis at its peak.
In the surprisingly danceable “’92 Weird Diseases,” Merritt shares about his epilepsy and other potential ailments like Asperger’s, as well as being sedated through treatment. While the subject seems serious, levity and humor are invited with the tempo and percussion. The ’00s bring more relationship tales with “’03 The Ex and I,” which shares a story about the ramifications of sex with an ex. And in “’05 Never Again,” he hopelessly sings, “I guess there’ll be other fish in the sea / but I don’t want fishes, and they don’t want me.” But finally in “’15 Somebody’s Fetish,” Merritt appears to have found real, lasting love as he toots his horn to discovering that “everybody’s somebody’s fetish.”
50 Song Memoir has a brilliance about it that feels almost too personal to judge. But if one were to do so, it could be said that even an intriguing concept and all the instruments in the world don’t necessarily make up for a lack of interesting music. Each track is simple and repetitive in order to support the listener in easing through this fifty-piece concept work; but only a handful of songs really stand out musically, while the rest wouldn’t be so successful standing on their own. But the autobiographical nature of the album is just cause to dive deep into the lyrics in which Merritt’s story unfolds. In doing so, one is invited to curl up with this autobiography and catch a glimpse into a life filled with ups and downs, financial hardships, distant relationships and loves lost.