In the same vein as 1999’s ’69 Love Songs’, the Magnetic Fields have piled together another conceptual epic in the form of ’50 Song Memoir’. The album details numerous events in the life of songwriter, producer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt. The album features fifty songs (you probably guessed that), and typifies how adventurous Merritt can be once he gets an idea in his head. The results are mostly good, with the stories being told having a decent mix of charm and quirkiness, the kind of thing you’d expect from a Magnetic Fields album.
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The story begins at ’’66 Wonder Where I’m From’ and ends with a fifty year old’s ’’15 Somebody’s Fetish’. What happens in between is hardly romantic, with Merritt very much so going into specifics about his life, rather than the milestones one would assume would be written and sung about. ’’68 A Cat Called Dionysus’ details Merritt’s relationship with his cat at a very young age and how “he hated me, but I loved him”. The almost creepy instrumental and Merritt’s gothic vocals somehow fail to get in the way of this song being adorable.
Other key compositions include ’’81 How to Play a Synthesizer’, which sees the Magnetic Fields go full new wave, ‘’83 Foxx and I’, which boasts a simple but lovely chorus, and ’’92 Weird Diseases’, which is a lyrical powerhouse about having numerous diseases – a seriously great piece of songwriting; “nearly fatal renal cysts, maybe Asperger’s if that exists”.
The album takes a pretty underwhelming dip later on. The likes of ’’05 Never Again’ and ‘’06 “Quotes”’, among others, lack the necessary memorability, intriguing stories or quotable lyrics that earlier songs from the album include. This is a five-disc, two-and-a-half hour album, so it’s not like every single song was going to be incredible, but if a lot of the slightly boorish stuff from the last two discs was shaven off, it’d make the album that much better.
Taking its conceptuality into consideration, it’s great that ’50 Song Memoir’ exists; it’s everything it claims to be, and massive fans of Stephin Merritt are bound to get a kick out of it. It’s an audial autobiography, an optimistic rarity with fulfilling results.
’50 Song Memoir’ is out now via Nonesuch Records