50 Song Memoir
REVIEW BY: Ken DiTomaso
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/18/2017
No strangers to concept albums, The Magnetic Fields has dropped a real doozy here. It’s been nearly 20 years since the release of their seminal conceptual project 69 Love Songs, and while the band has put out many records since then, that release is the one that this new release will inevitably be compared to. However, the concept here is actually significantly more elaborate than that disc. Since the notion of what a love song actually is somewhat vague, 69’s concept mostly boils down to “here’s a ton of songs all at once.”
50 Song Memoir also has the “tons of songs” gimmick, but there’s a far more focused lyrical concept at work here, too. Each song documents a specific year of singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt’s life. Some focus on specific details, providing us with little anecdotes and stories. Others are reflections of events that influenced him and musings on his emotional state at specific times in his life.
The music itself evolves to reflect not only the year each song is set in but also the age Merritt was at and the kind of music he was into or making at the time. It’s a nice touch. For example, the ‘60s songs are folk-like and have more childlike instrumentation, and the songs set in the ‘80s dabble in synthesizers to reflect Merritt learning the instrument. Many songs set in the ‘90s and ‘00s reflect the sound of Merritt's various albums over the years. These shifts in style aren't particularly strong, mind you. It still sounds like you would expect the Magnetic Fields to sound (which is to say you won’t find any loud drum kits or crazy guitar solos here), but they are present and add a nice feeling of progression to the album as it moves along.
Unlike most other Magnetic Fields releases, Merritt himself performs all of the lead vocals here. On one hand, this makes sense, as these are autobiographical songs. But on the other hand, I kind of miss hearing the lead vocals of regular guest singers Shirley Simms and Claudia Gonson. They do appear to provide backing vocals throughout, so it’s not like they’re completely absent, but I wouldn’t have minded hearing a more diverse collection of singers throughout this project. Even though a lot is done to mix up the sound across these 50 tracks, the sameness of Merritt's vocals make it a little tough to take in all at once.
But I don't think we're meant to take this whole album all at once. It’s arranged in ten-song chunks to make listening a bit more digestible. This might even be the ideal way to experience it. Broken down like that, it's far easier to distinguish individual songs, and with each batch of ten coming in at around 30 minutes, it even paradoxically makes the album feel kind of short. It also plays great on shuffle mode, which isn't something I can say about many records.
There are far too many individual highlights to name them all, but I can pick out a handful of tracks that struck me in particular. “I Wonder Where I'm From” starts off the whole project with Merritt's birth, illustrated by delightful alliterative lyrics. There’s a hilarious song where Merritt’s mother warns him against a career as a musician because “Rock And Roll Will Ruin Your Life,” but Merritt defends himself by pointing out that he’s too queer for groupies, can’t afford drugs, and has hyperacousis, which prevents him from playing music too loud (the latter of which he elaborates on further in the song “Weird Diseases”). On “Life Ain't All Bad,” Merritt sings joyously about how the person he hated most when he was a kid is now dead. And “I Wish I Had Pictures” is a beautiful yet sad tribute to the passage of time.It’s an odd phenomenon, but somehow Stephin Merritt thrives when giving himself big songwriting challenges like this. Almost all of these 50 songs have something about them that’s worth hearing. Of course, it’s inevitable that with so many tunes on this set some will fall flat. But the ratio of great to bad is far higher than you might expect. I would say the second batch of ten has the greatest songs, while the fourth batch contains the fewest. The fact that there are these small lulls in quality does hurt the album a bit. But every time I’ve played it something new pops out, so even that opinion might not hold for very long. There’s so much music to dig through here it's impossible to fully digest all at once. 50 Song Memoir is strong proof that Stephin Merritt’s bonafides as one of the best songwriters working today are still as strong as ever.