The Magnetic Fields unite comedy and tragedy on 50 Song Memoir

50 Song MemoirFor any other artist, an album comprising 50 explicitly autobiographical songs for each year of their life would be seen as the height of narcissism, a swollen vanity project for the benefit of no one but the author. Fortunately, Stephen Merritt is quite unlike any other artist, and his latest conceptual sprawl provides a fascinating glimpse into the personal, political, and cultural epochs that shaped the half-century of American life he’s lived through. But more than that, The Magnetic Fields man's storytelling of the events that take place across 50 Song Memoir never seeks to delineate between history and pop culture, fact and emotion, tragedy and farce. Like Morrissey just before him (and, by proxy, Wilde), Merritt cares far too much about life to take it seriously.

Of course, no review of his work is ever complete without a dewy-eyed glance back at 1999's breakthrough 69 Love Songs. Like that record – or any that clocks in past the two and a half hour mark – 50 Song Memoir is a surprisingly cohesive affair, and in spite of a smattering of forgettable dirges and novelty clangers, the old double-album cliché that you could whittle it down to one great album, while perhaps true, seems to miss the point here. Certainly the high-camp winks to ‘80s synth-pop and New Romantic stylings become tiresome long before they end, but somehow the memoir concept renders them as key signposts, parenthetical asides to the story’s main narrative.

That narrative, quite understandably, evolves as Merritt takes us through the shifting moods and decades of his life. The early years betray very little of his own experiences, choosing to focus instead on his introduction to the political watermarks of the era: Vietnam, Stonewall, hippy culture. The only themes that recur with any meaningful regularity at this time are his mother and, in tandem, her predilection for the kind of religious and gnostic beliefs that Merritt greets with utter derision. “67 Come Back as a Cockroach” is the first bilious rebuttal (“What a scam!”), but it’s the sarcastic “74 No” that really captures his irreverence in full swing: “Is there a man in Heaven looking out for you? Is there a place dead loved ones go? Is there a source of wisdom that will see you through? Will there be peace in our time? No.” Fittingly, that final negation is delivered with the affirmative force of a street sermon.

Humour seems to be a conduit for confronting some of the 50 Song Memoir’s darker moments: “77 Life Ain’t All Bad” addresses an unwanted father figure with purest vitriol, while “90 Dreaming in Tetris” and “92 Weird Diseases” deal with various illnesses ranging from Asperger’s to Chrohn’s to AIDS. Yet playfulness is never far from Merritt’s lips, and his rhyming couplet game is well and truly on point throughout. Who else could pair ‘Dionysus’ and ‘crisis’? ‘Pitiful orphans’ with ‘lack of endorphins’?

What this does mean is that when he goes in hard for a ballad – sincerely, eloquently, openly – the floodgates breach. As we pass into the 21st century, the songs begin to reflect Merritt’s increasing preoccupation with the few relative constants in his life (patches of New York, cyclic depression) with a world of increasing unknowns. “01 Have You Seen It in the Snow?” doesn’t reference 9/11 directly, but when he chooses that year to sing about how beautiful the city looks, “when every light has a halo… and the world glows white in the morning light,” it’s difficult not to be moved by the parallel. Even “02 Be True to Your Bar,” which is basically “Do You Realize???” sung to a pub, proves to be an emotional experience.

Perhaps, caught in a sentimental mood during 50 Song Memoir's editing stage, the album could have ended on that note. “14 I Wish I Had Pictures” is a heartbreaking look back at everything you’ve just shared with Merritt, all the formative childhood curiosities, teenage experiments, and adult mistakes that make up the memoir, and a wish that he could pin them down more firmly. “If I were a poet, I’d know the right word, I’d make it all pretty,” he sings. “But I’m just a singer, it’s only a song. The things I remember are probably wrong. I wish I had pictures.” It’s a quietly devastating reflection on the impermanence of a life, even one captured in art.

In true Magnetic Fields style, though, the album ends on “15 Somebody’s Fetish” instead. Is it a smutty treatise on the variety of sexual preference (“Some spank the maid, and some wank the valet”)? Is it a loved-up valedictory, a message of hope that there’s someone out there for everyone? No. It’s both, of course. If you’re anything like Stephen Merritt, maybe you’ve already figured out that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same mask.

Release: 3rd March 2017, Nonesuch Records

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