The Magnetic Fields – 5 Selections From 50 Song Memoir

by Oliver Rose

In March 2017, the Magnetic Fields will release 50 Song Memoir, their first album in five years. Piloted by the magnificent Stephin Merritt, the band are taking the whole show on a small US road-trip this Winter; in the meantime, a teaser EP has been released to tide us over.

The album, modelled on the band’s previous hit project 69 Love-Songs, contains a song written about every year of Merritt’s life. From the sound of things thus far, that set-list looks to be peppered with the usual variety of Fields experiments, some of them resembling traditional songs; some of them anything but.

Everything here is brilliant in its own way.

First we have, ‘74: No, a horn-laden, ukulele-driven ditty, detailing the non-entity of concepts like religion, as well as supposed, physical actualities, like UFOs. “Is there a man in heaven looking out for you?” Merritt posits; “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,” he bluntly concedes. The song diverts off into this weird, electro bossa nova style section halfway through, returning clumsily to the main structure at the end. If this were any other band, you’d call it shambolic – but is it here? No.

‘86: How I Failed Ethics is the next song on the EP and it does exactly what it says on the tin. A very dry recollection of Merritt’s college years, the song takes the form of a poem bent awkwardly around a spacey, Mellotron- instrumental. It’s the EP’s strongest moment, in my opinion, doing for the narrative figure in modern popular music what Leopold Bloom did for literary protagonism. The observations are hilarious, and, as ever, pave the way for what must surely be the first musical utilisation of at least one or two words: “The first time I made mincemeat of the standard propositions / establishing a so-called moral science / and I declared morality an offshoot of aesthetics /and got a failing C for my defiance.”

‘93: Me And Fred And Dave And Ted is much more typical of Merritt, and fondly recalls a bizarre, hebdomadal orgy of burly American males and their domestic pets. Its throbbing ukulele rhythm and meandering acoustic bass recall the band’s 2008 Realism LP, but it’s catchier and funnier than anything off that record, for sure. Together with ‘02: Be True To Your Bar, it’s a weaker link on the EP. The former is an ode to Merritt’s preferred songwriting habitat, as documented in the fantastic Strange Powers film, and indeed other Fields tracks (it seems then, slightly unnecessary to elucidate so explicitly on the bar location, given Merritt’s previous, more nuanced toying with the idea – e.g., Papa Was a Rodeo, Too Drunk to Dream).

The EP, then ends on ‘13: Big Enough for Both of Us, the most electronic arrangement and, ironically given its placement further down the track-list, the oldest sounding moment of the five, recalling the patchy twang of The Charm of the Highway Strip, and the Susan Anway-sung first records, Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus.

It’s a waste of time rating this EP as a standalone collection – its primary objective is to satiate those waiting eagerly for the full package, and it does so neatly, presenting a song from each decade and with enough textural variation to titillate. Merritt is meant to have played several hundred different instruments on the record and from this very short preview, he manages, with his wit, melodic power and anti-production manoeuvres to create massive excitement for the remaining 90% of the collection.

If you’re not too familiar with The Magnetic Fields, or Stephin Merritt’s wider oeuvre, there’s no better place to start than this EP. It’s been an absolute joy discovering him and trawling through the reams and reams of music he’s written since his youth as a disillusioned, miserable teenager through his adulthood as a disillusioned, miserable adult.