The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt excels with a prompt. Over the course of his rich 30-year career, his crowning achievements have been marked by his ability to work within a framework. Whether it was his “no-synth” trilogy or The Charm of the Highway Strip, building a record around a uniting theme gives him a spark that challenges his unending well of creativity. Half the fun of his landmark 69 Love Songs is listening to Merritt weave adeptly through his self-imposed limits, stretching the definition of what composes a love song across emotions and genres. That’s why it’s no surprise that 50 Song Memoir, the sequel to that seminal work, rises to meet its maker’s ambitions. An unprecedented two-and-a-half-hour journey into the typically guarded Merritt’s life, the album is as revealing as it is resonant.
Working off a proposal from Robert Hurwitz, the president of Nonesuch Records, Merritt embarks on a daunting task through 50 Song Memoir. An autobiographical record of, yes, 50 songs, the album is sequenced chronologically so that each track represents the next consecutive year in his life. Merritt’s skill of finding the exact turn of phrase to underscore a feeling is one that few achieve, and watching him turn that inward is illuminating.
In the album’s liner notes, a conversation between Merritt and bandmate and author Daniel Handler that contains a track-by-track commentary, Merritt describes 50 Song Memoir as “an answer” to 69 Love Songs, a mostly nonfiction construct pulled from his experiences. While he enlists frequent collaborators Claudia Gonson, Shirley Simms, Christopher Ewen, and Handler among others, it’s Merritt who takes center stage. He sings lead on nearly all 50 tracks and also plays over 100 different instruments on the record, including glockenspiel, djembe, zill, autoharp, and abacus. The outcome is a winding journey through Merritt’s influences, like the disco of the mid-‘70s presented on “Hustle 76”, the synth-based work of Ultravox founder John Foxx on “Foxx and I”, and the obscure 1989 Musical Marching Zoo, a band from the ‘60s who only wore animal masks in photo shoots, all of which informed his palette.
Split across five discs, the events Merritt chooses to write about show how the often-mundane moments have as much an impact as the ones that seem more significant at the time. There are the early years, where the strongest memories are of childhood cats and dreams of running away from home, and the cultural touch points like Stonewall or Vietnam are remembered by proxy through figures like Judy Garland and Grace Slick. The teenage years are filled with vitriol for his mother’s boyfriends, including one who once cut the brakes on the family car, and time spent alone discovering Kraftwerk and The New Romantics. Eventually, he finds a home and community in nightclubs like Danceteria and The Pyramid, and he chronicles that look back at the New York club scene of the ‘80s with loving nostalgia.
His knack for detail also lands many biting punch lines, like the faith healer on “No” who claimed to cure cancer and certainly accepted donations, or the vivid remembrance of a semester-long standoff with a college professor on “How I Failed Ethics”. As the album goes on, these asides become increasingly more tragic, leading to “Dreaming in Tetris”, the album’s bracing midpoint. Here, Merritt sings about the friends he lost to AIDS, summing up a decade of pain into a few heartbreaking couplets: “We expected nuclear war/ What should we take precautions for?” This leads directly into the album’s second half, a morose walk through breakups and bursts of depression. Lovers come and go, estranged parents attempt to make amends, and Merritt faces both extreme poverty and suicidal thoughts throughout his twenties. In his fashion, the darkest songs are filled with reggae rhythms or Italo disco beats, and the more baroque moments are saved for matters of the heart.
Compared to 69 Love Songs’ acute takes on all aspects of love, 50 Song Memoir tackles the more complicated parts, the inevitability of a relationship ending badly, clinging to the memory of someone who left, or unwisely reconnecting with an ex. It’s full of bitterness, some maudlin, others cheeky, and songs like “Cold-Blooded Man” are a master class in pettiness. It’s not until the later years that weariness and resignation set in, observing cities forever changed and friends long gone. This leads to the wistful “I Wish I Had Pictures”, where at his most vulnerable, Merritt desperately grasps at memories that have begun to slip away. Luckily, for him and the listener, he ends his tale on a happy note, acknowledging that everybody is “Somebody’s Fetish” and that even he has finally found love after decades of searching.
The scale of Merritt’s grand experiment is impressive, and the way he infuses each song with such specific callbacks to the time it references offers more insight into his psyche than a book ever could. Though he wrote the majority of the songs specifically for the record, he also resurrected songs originally written decades ago, such as an ode to one of his favorite authors, Ethan Frome, and “The Ghost of the Marathon Dancers”, an outtake from an Ang Lee film he wrote music for that never ended up being made. The most striking piece, “Have You Seen It in the Snow”, stands out as his beautiful ode to New York City in the wake of 9/11, a song he initially wrote in 2001 for Kiki and Herb. The seams are nonexistent, as Merritt can transform any song into a time capsule encompassing the feel of an era, whether he wrote it then or years later.
Merritt could have taken the strongest 20 songs from this album and put out a wonderfully taut double album, but that would have removed the joy of getting to know his idiosyncrasies and personality on a level as never before. The kind of fan excited for a 50-song album by The Magnetic Fields knows what they’re getting into, and that inherent messiness is what makes the album work. 50 Song Memoir may not have the highs of “The Book of Love” or “Papa Was a Rodeo”, but it’s a more consistent listen all the way through and a more-than-worthy sequel to its predecessor. It’s a memoir only Merritt could write, and the only one we’d want him to.
Essential Tracks: “No”, “Dreaming in Tetris”, “Have You Seen It in the Snow”, “Cold-Blooded Man”, and “I Wish I Had Pictures”