The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir

by Oliver Rose

I owe Stephin Merritt everything. I have long fetishised his pantomime reliance on rhyming dictionaries, his DIY production and indeed his wry, pop-culture references. I am enamoured with his recycling of Brill building bubble-gum melodies and with his darkly cynical twists on those songs’ saccharin lyrics. I have stolen his untrained baritone drawl, and its playful Americanisation of the English language. I am in love with the artist.

When I discovered the Magnetic Fields (his main project), I must have been about 17. Their most recent record at the time was 2012’s lacklustre Love At The Bottom Of The Sea – a bloated exercise in punishingly obvious synth-pop, devoid of Merritt’s clever inferences and plagued instead by a ferocious case of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. There was, in fairness, still some fun to be had. The masochistic pop of Your Girlfriend’s Face and the eye-rolling predictability of rhyme in All She Cares About Is Mariachi, demonstrated the wonderful sense of humour and puckish wordplay prominent throughout Merritt’s songwriting career. Critics of Love At The Bottom Of The Sea rounded on its conceptlessness (to coin a Merritt-esque –ism) – indeed, it was the first Magnetic Fields album since 1999 not to employ a conceptual format of some kind.

Here, on 50 Song Memoir, Merritt has set about returning to a strict doctrine – 50 songs, one for each year of his life, each using no more than seven instruments, any one of which is not to be used more than seven times across the album. Unlike 69 Love Songs, whose ‘rules’ were simpler (create 69 songs connoting in any way to love), this concept is somewhat more restrictive – and it’s potentially here that the record’s chief fault-line is established.

As an ardent fan of Stephin Merritt’s work, it pains me to admit that most of this record is… well… not very good. I’ve listened to it fully about three or four times now and I reckon there are 22 decent tracks. In the grand scheme of things, that’s nothing to complain about. If your favourite musician were to release 22 good songs after a not-excessive five year wait, you might ordinarily be impressed. Returning to that very basic model of appreciation was hard on 50 Song Memoir. In the shadow of 69 Love Songs, there was the very real possibility that something fairly spectacular could happen… especially in light of it being a) Merritt’s first explicit foray into autobiographical songwriting and b) a concept practically built for such a reverent nostalgia-phile. And whilst it seems unfair to constantly refer back to 69, one can’t help but figure that the binary exists very deliberately. Even the titles mirror.

Critical praise for 69 Love Songs is such that its mundane or idiotic moments are forgiven – because they are just that: moments. Experimental Music Love, a 30 second tribute to Steve Reich, is too cultured and too brief to be hated; Love Is Like Jazz, in a similar way to Leonard Cohen’s Jazz Police, makes a formalist joke of itself that substantiates it’s two minute run-time. On 50 Song Memoir, however, Merritt doesn’t get away with it so easy, and a lot of that comes from his use of instruments. ’72: Eye Contact is a repetitive, groaning bin-bag of toy instruments and moaning; ‘89 The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo is atonal, discordant and out of time. At his absolute worst, Merritt is stylistically self-indulgent to the point of discomfort (’06: Quotes), annoyingly theatrical (’84 Danceteria!) or just dull (’82: Happy Beeping). Worse still, there are a whole host of songs that didn’t even annoy, but just left me utterly ambivalent: I can barely even recall the more boring compositions, like ’95: A Serious Mistake, and ‘05 Never Again. Tragically, some of these songs had really stimulating lyrics – ’90: Dreaming in Tetris recalls friends lost to AIDS, as ‘14 I Wish I Had Pictures describes an instance of mid-life mourning for fading memories. But, crucially, both songs were completely forgettable. I have never had the displeasure of so many sub-par Stephin Merritt compositions on one release. Truly, I’m shocked.

And yet, in direct contrast to this frustrating majority, there are some total gems here – some of the best songs Merritt has ever written. To add to the five pre-released last November (a now very misleading selection, which I reviewed glowingly at the time), there are tracks like the brooding ’77: Life Ain’t All Bad, which celebrates the death of a villainous guardian figure from Merritt’s youth – a despicable former boyfriend of his mothers’. Similarly, the joyfully esoteric ’81: How to Play the Synthesiser provides a self-aware walkthrough of modular synthesis with such acerbic rhymes as “this could be a triangle, saw-tooth or a square/modulate the pulse-width – nobody will care.” Elsewhere, Merritt amusingly recalls unrequited childhood affection for pets (’68: A Cat Called Dionysus), jokingly recollects TV-advertised budget compilations (’76: Hustle 76) and pays tribute to post-911 New York and its surviving propensity for wintery beauty (’01: Have You Seen It in the Snow?) He even makes something incredibly witty out of his normally unwelcome, detuned world music tools – ’78: The Blizzard of ’78 is his tribute to a winter spent “on a commune in northern Vermont/with all the Isaac Asimov anybody could want”, and playing in a band so bad that their rehearsals “made the Shags sounds like Yes”.

Whilst the album fails to produce an indelible centrepiece à la Papa Was a Rodeo, it’s finest moment is, in this critic’s opinion, ’83: Foxx and I, an outstanding synth-pop tribute to the former Ultravox! frontman, John Foxx. Its lyrics fondly namedrop paraphernalia of the period (the Roland TB-303; Top of the Pops) and the chorus celebrates the inviting, all-encompassing liberal politics of new romanticism via a fun treatment of grammatical expectancy (“anyone can change into a machine/girl or white/black or boy).

50 Song Memoir has been an inordinately difficult listen for me. It is a very patchy record – entirely inconsistent, and in a most unenjoyably disappointing way. It differs from the infamous 69 Love Songs insomuch as its left-field experiments are too frequent and too long to properly service satisfaction with the whole. It is, I am sad to say, a poor album. However, when the Magnetic Fields’ magical formula works, it spins gold. Of the 22 songs here I would deem listenable, two-thirds are extremely good, and between five and 10 are amongst the strongest songs in Merritt’s now-enormous catalogue. This, ultimately, is the risk of prolificacy – the audience must demonstrate willingness to wade through a lot and enjoy only a fraction. That process of refinement, however, yields a concentrated result, and thankfully, despite this album’s shortcomings, it’s not thinly spread, just disparately good.