“Naa naa na naa na, you’re dead now”, jibes Stephin Merritt in ‘Life’s not all bad’ — an instant crowd-pleaser about the death of his mom’s boyfriend. The evening brims with Stephin’s usual dry, dark lyrics, but this time blended with a childish humour that draws delicious, guilty chuckles from the audience.
The Magnetic Fields like a good gimmick. Their most famous album, 69 Love Songs, was followed by i, an album filled with songs beginning with, you guessed it, the letter ‘i’, and a few years ago Stephin Merritt toured with 27 Individual Songs, one for each letter of the alphabet. Even for them, their current project 50 Song Memoir is ambitious. They began recording the autobiographical album on Stephin’s 50th birthday, with each of the 50 songs documenting a year of his life. Even more ambitious is that they are touring the entire album this month, playing all 50 songs over two nights in each city. This show documented the first 25 years of Stephin’s life.
Stephin sits inside a giant, three-sided dollhouse. Crowded around him is fifty years’ worth of toys and gadgets. His six band members surround the dollhouse. His isolation from the band reflects his lonely childhood spent moving countries (33 in 23 years), avoiding his “sticky school mates” and daydreaming. In ‘Eye Contact’, he pleads “I can’t act, must we make eye contact”. His interaction with the audience is entirely scripted, and read with the monotonic drawl of a loudspeaker asking people to please take their seats. I was initially worried about the effect that the awkward stage setup would have on the music, but the band’s 30 years of playing together creates a perfectly in-sync, engaging show, with the isolation just adding to the autobiographical narrative.
Exactly as you might imagine Stephin’s teenage bedroom, the stage is littered with instruments. The band plays over a hundred instruments over the course of the two nights, and are as eclectic as they are numerous. A stroh horn violin solo here, a power tool screech there, and a particularly sonorous marble run provides a rhythmic interlude. Even the instruments you might recognize are played in surprising ways – Sam Davol plays his cello like an electric bass (“cellooooo”) in ‘They’re Killing Children Over There’, and like a sitar for the dark discotheque hit, ‘At the Pyramid’.
It would be wrong to discount the album/show as pure gimmick; this is some of the Magnetic Fields’ best work. This is a show that is incredibly rich, laced with complex textures, at other times beautifully pure and stripped back — alternating between organ-spirituals and psychedelic trippy synth tracks. While I’m looking forward to the album release and hearing all 50 songs in one place, the live show (complete with José Zayas and his directorial vision) is an unmissable experience.
The Magnetic Fields are on a month-long tour. The new album comes out on 3 March 2017 on Nonesuch Records.