The Magnetic Fields’ ‘50 Song Memoir’
In this story
Stephin Merritt, lead singer and songwriter of indie pop band The Magnetic Fields, likes a challenge. When the head of his record company suggested Merritt compose a song about each year of his life, the songwriter readily agreed. “I thought straight away it was a good idea,” Merritt told me recently. “And I believe I said I would sleep on it – and then still thought it was a good idea.”
Given Merritt was about to turn 50, this equated to 50 songs spread over five CDs, an enormous task. Now, two years later, 50 Song Memoir is the marvellous result. Principally recorded by Merritt alone at his house in upstate New York, he and his occasional collaborators have created a grand opus out of the flotsam and jetsam of a lifetime. 50 Song Memoir is nothing short of a masterpiece.
This is not the first epic concept album Merritt has devised. In 1999, The Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs, an acclaimed three-CD set that became the band’s mainstream breakthrough, albeit temporarily. One of its songs, “The Book of Love”, was covered by Peter Gabriel, and his hit version helped to turn it into a pop standard to be played at weddings forever after.
The irony is that 69 Love Songs was an album about love songs rather than about love itself. Merritt made no pretence about it being anything other than pretence. “I don’t really think that it’s important to distinguish between sincerity and irony, or lying in songs,” he said at the time. “Because I don’t really think there’s any opportunity for actual sincerity in popular music.”
Be that as it may, this time around there can be no mistaking the veracity of Merritt’s lyrics. The songs on 50 Song Memoir are arranged in chronological order, and each song title also contains the year in which the events occurred. Unlike other Magnetic Fields albums, this time Merritt sings all the songs himself. As he told me: “It’s edited but it’s not fictionalised.”
In the album’s opening song, “ ’66: Wonder Where I’m From”, the songwriter ponders the chance moment of his conception:
In St Thomas, barefoot beatniks bonk
On a boat afloat in rum
Is it there I’m from?
I wonder where I’m from
Up in Yonkers, two blocks from the Bronx:
Baby born, ’bout as big as your thumb.
Is it there I’m from?
I wonder where I’m from
The pretty folk melody has a sparse backing of just two ukuleles, one conventional and the other a bass instrument. Their combined effect is completely charming. Of course, Merritt’s lyrics always carry a hint of vinegar below the sweet top notes. “ ’67: Come Back as a Cockroach” explores Merritt’s failed spiritual education, a subject he revisits in “ ’74: No”. For the record, Merritt is an avowed atheist.
The next two songs give more insight into his sense of self and the world he inhabited then, and that preoccupies him still. “ ’68: A Cat Called Dionysus” describes the family cat’s efforts to escape the toddler’s clutches, at times violently. It’s a childish pet story but it’s also a metaphor for unrequited love: “He hated me ’cause I loved him.” This theme returns in a series of songs about his romantic misadventures as an adult, both comic and touching: “ ’93: Me and Fred and Dave and Ted”, “ ’95: A Serious Mistake”, “ ’03: The Ex and I” and “ ’05: Never Again”. Above all else, Merritt is a brilliant wordsmith, and his lyrics often resemble epigrams as he laughs at himself through his bitter tears.
The fourth song, “ ’69: Judy Garland”, links Judy Garland’s death with a pivotal moment in the gay rights movement. Merritt is gay himself but he was still a child in 1969 so, again, childhood events are put into a new context as an adult, as he explained when I interviewed him. “The song hangs on the Stonewall riots,” he said. “But it’s also about the passing of the great star from the studio system, the iconic child star. So I guess I’m making a comparison between child star Judy Garland and late-’60s child life, which is sitting in the car while my mother tries to drive to Woodstock.”
Merritt’s mother features strongly throughout the 50 Song Memoir, particularly in the songs that deal with the first dozen years of his life, as you would expect. He was an only child and didn’t meet his biological father until he was 34 (“ ’99: Fathers in the Clouds”), so his mother, a self-described beatnik, was the only constant in his life growing up. They lived at 33 different addresses as she pursued enlightenment and an alternative lifestyle (“ ’73: It Could Have Been Paradise”, “ ’75: My Mama Ain’t”), which prevented Merritt from forming any lasting friendships as a child.
Inevitably, he spent a lot of time on his own. His mother also took up with a variety of useless boyfriends, if the lyrics of “ ’73: It Could Have Been Paradise”, “ ’82: Happy Beeping” and, in particular, “ ’77: Life Ain’t All Bad” are to be believed:
I laboured in your ice-cream truck
Whenever I was not in school
You only used that ice-cream truck
To sit there guzzling beer, you tool
Na na na na, na na na you’re dead now
Na na na na, na na na so I say
Na na na na, na na na life ain’t all bad
On Disc Two there is a very funny song about Merritt’s first band, The Black Widows, formed when he was 13. “ ’78: The Blizzard of ’78” describes them as so bad they “made The Shaggs sound like Yes”. Merritt’s current band only turns up surreptitiously in the guise of “ ’89: The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo”.
And this is the band I wanted to be
No names and faces, and no history
Particularly, no pictures of me
Fans of The Magnetic Fields would be accustomed to their diversity of instrumentation and musical styles, but newcomers may find themselves bewildered at times. What exactly are The Magnetic Fields trying to be? Art rock? Folk pop? Outsider art? Some of the production is heavily layered, with string sections and washes of ELO-style backing vocals, but the backing for other songs is bare-boned and skeletal. For example, on “ ’91: The Day I Finally…” Merritt sings while accompanying himself on a one-man-band percussion set and, intermittently, a Critter & Guitari Pocket Piano, recorded live in one take in his home studio. There is no rhyme or reason to the sonic decisions he makes as a producer, but the arrangements are never clichéd. Merritt mingles dissonance with consonance, bubblegum melodies with sombre electronica and… well, you get the idea.
One sonic flavour that is always welcome on a Magnetic Fields album is 1980s British electro-pop. Merritt spent a crucial part of his teenage years in London at the height of the Blitz Kids movement and, along with bubblegum pop, it forms an integral part of his musical DNA, something the lyrics of “ ’80: London by Jetpack” happily admit.
I spent August in London
When the New Romantics reigned
And though I was oblivious then
My love has never waned
My “roots” are New Romantic, as
My critics have complained
Merritt plays with preconceptions by performing this song on guitars rather than synths, with the rhythm track provided by a primitive drum machine, probably the Rhythm Ace listed in the liner notes. “ ’81: How to Play the Synthesizer” and “ ’83: Foxx and I” inhabit similar territory, but here synthesisers and other electro-pop signifiers are out in force, which is all to the good. John Foxx’s Metamatic album is one of Merritt’s all-time favourites, so a musical debt is being repaid here, helping to make this the most uninhibited and fun section of the album. On NPR, Merritt described the New Romantic movement as “the last great period of popular music” and I’m inclined to agree with him, if one includes ’80s hip-hop and rap as well.
Some of these songs had been hanging around in embryonic form for years. Merritt actually composed “ ’88: Ethan Frome” in 1988, after reading the Edith Wharton novella for the first time on his 23rd birthday, a ritual he repeated every birthday for the next decade. Similarly, the entire backing track for “ ’87: At the Pyramid” dates from 1987 when Merritt was a regular at NYC’s famed Pyramid Club. Merritt usually kept to himself in nightclubs, only occasionally venturing onto the dance floor. “I should mention that I hardly ever speak to people in public,” he told me. “So I did not make any friends at the Pyramid.”
Spending so much time on his own as a child made him taciturn as an adult and he is still very reserved in social situations, a discomfort that may have contributed to the bouts of anxiety and depression that overtook him in his late 20s, as detailed in “ ’91: The Day I Finally…”, “ ’94: Haven’t Got a Penny”, “ ’96: I’m Sad!” and “ ’97: EuroDisco Trio”. Perversely, this was exactly when Merritt was becoming more of a public figure as a result of his work with The Magnetic Fields.
Merritt describes himself as “a compulsive list-maker” and that is reflected in the album’s liner notes. He itemises every instrument used, listing them in the exact order they appear. During these recording sessions Merritt himself played 113 instruments, from exotic percussion devices to a plethora of arcane synthesisers and electronic gadgets. It’s a musical Old Curiosity Shop, with all manner of plucked, blown and struck sounds animating the music, along with innumerable treated, manipulated and sampled sounds and found objects. For example, the finale of “ ’01: Have You Seen It in the Snow?” turns the hubbub of Manhattan traffic into a street symphony. Merritt describes this beautiful number as his “9/11 song” and I can see it joining “The Book of Love” as another pop standard, along with a few others here: “ ’98: Lovers’ Lies”, “ ’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers”, and the two songs that conclude Disc Five, “ ’14: I Wish I Had Pictures” and “ ’15: Somebody’s Fetish”. This last song in particular gives the album’s story arc and its narrator the happy ending they deserve.
Taken song by song, 50 Song Memoir is a series of colourful vignettes, but the various themes threaded through the whole shebang create a cumulative effect that adds up to something quite profound. I can’t think of any other musical work, in any genre, that is anything like this suite of songs. Quite simply, this musical/autobiographical mosaic is unique, more like a novel than an album of popular music.
This is Stephin Merritt’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, or his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, perhaps even his Ulysses. Earlier, I described it as nothing short of a masterpiece. I meant it.
CULTURE Enlighten Canberra
Venues throughout Canberra, until March 12
CINEMA Transitions Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Sydney, March 9-25
SCULPTURE Sculpture By the Sea
Cottesloe, Western Australia, until March 20
Botanic Park, Adelaide, March 10-13
VISUAL ART Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until June 18
CINEMA Alliance Française French Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Sydney, March 7-30
Cinemas throughout Melbourne, March 8-30
Palace Electric Cinema, Canberra, March 9-April 4
FESTIVAL Moomba Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, March 10-13
VISUAL ART Brook Andrew: The Right to Offend is Sacred
NGV International, Melbourne, until June 4
CINEMA Melbourne Women in Film Festival
Treasury Theatre, Melbourne, until March 4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Order of Merritt". Subscribe here.