The Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir is more show than album. In fact, having covered the first 25 songs at New York’s BAM and the rest of the half-century in London’s Barbican (resisting the urge to listen to the album in between), the record seems more like a cast recording of a hit show than a conventional band project.
In favour of this interpretation are the use of characters, set, dialogue, direction and narrative arc befitting of this landmark opus. Meritt (the protagonist) announces his arrival by means of a bell and cymbal-laden staff that he strikes on the stage, launching straight into ‘The Day I Finally’ which kicks off Programme 2. The set —pink bay windows enclosing assorted curios that open into the hall— cup Stephin on his swivel chair, ‘script’ laid open on the lectern in front. Atop the structure, a ‘magic mirror’ within an ornate frame acts as a projector screen for alternatively illustrative and surreal illustration and film clips. The rest of the band sit on the other side of the set in the shadows, switching with mercurial humility between countless instruments.
Each song marks a year of his life and is delivered with self-deprecating melancholy. Love, friendship, family, transition and bagels are all considered and exposed as the years and songs roll on. After a first half (covering years 1991 to 2002) that is wistful verging on dour, the last song of the section ‘Be True to Your Bar’ ends on an optimistic ode to camaraderie (and bars) that propels the second half with more pep. The band return after the interval with brighter ‘costumes’ and songs to match. While the lyrics still betray a wry view of the world and songs like ‘Surfin’ boast a disorientating atonality that is at odds with the ‘surfer song’ trope, it feels like a weight has been lifted. Merritt’s assured narration interludes demonstrate a comfort and peace with the harsher realities of life. ‘You Can Never Go Back to New York’ is positively jaunty and ‘Somebody’s Fetish’ (complete with erotic neon line drawings projected above) is an anthem for individuality and self-aware, communal weirdness.
By documenting (among other things) a failed move to LA in order to write hit musicals, in musical show form, Stephin Merritt has created a sort of sublime left-field pop musical. Don’t let the subtly intimate staging fool you, this is as a true, vibrant memoir crafted with a grandiose deftness of touch that countless theatrical productions would be lucky to boast.
The ‘cast recording’ of The Magnetic Fields’ hit show 50 Song Memoir is out now on Nonesuch Records.