Magnetic Fields

50 Song Memoir

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Stephin Merritt has never been afraid to think big, at least as far as his music is concerned, and his ad-hoc group the Magnetic Fields enjoyed their breakthrough with the wildly ambitious 1999 set 69 Love Songs, a three-disc collection featuring, yes, 69 songs about love. While that album bests 2017's 50 Song Memoir by 19 tracks, in nearly all other respects, 50 Song Memoir is a project of even greater scale and scope. Begun as Merritt was celebrating his 50th birthday, 50 Song Memoir finds him embracing pop songs as the medium for an autobiography, with each of the 50 tracks representing a different year in his life. The result is not an operatic narrative that ticks off various major events in Merritt's first half-century, but 50 Song Memoir does deliver a fascinating portrait of Merritt's life and times. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Merritt shares tales of his truly strange childhood, his interactions with his mother's many eccentric boyfriends, the joys and annoyances of life in New York City, his love of the city's bars and nightclubs, his dreams of being John Foxx of Ultravox, his hatred of surfing, relationships with numerous romantic partners, and the role music has played in nearly all of these episodes. As is his habit with the Magnetic Fields, Merritt handled the sizable majority of the instrumental chores on this album himself, making use of his large collection of electronic and acoustic instruments, and the results have a clanky, homespun charm that meshes nicely with the alternately buoyant and snarky tone of his frequently lovely melodies. But the real star of 50 Song Memoir is Stephin Merritt the songwriter -- these missives are full of wit, intelligence, and engaging wordplay that bring a playful touch to even the most dire subject matter (and a very human sense of gravity to the funnier numbers). And the closer, "Somebody's Fetish," is a hilarious but encouraging statement of how love eventually comes to us all, showing even Merritt knows the value of a happy ending. There are very few working songwriters who could have pulled off this sort of a project this well, and even fewer who could make this giant-sized song cycle feel so intimate and accessible. 50 Song Memoir is a rare example of Stephin Merritt offering a look into his offstage life, but just as importantly it's a reminder of why he's a truly great songwriter, and this ranks with his finest work.

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