No working songwriter has cataloged their material quite like Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Since his band’s landmark 1999 LP, 69 Love Songs, the curmudgeon king of indie art-pop has been famously organizing nearly two decades of work with varying degrees of specificity and success. This is done through clumsily tongue-in-cheek devices, from 2001’s i (all the song titles begin with that letter) to the distortion-drenched Distortion and the acoustic romp of Realism. You either find this charming, or you don’t — and if you’re in that second camp, a compulsion to skip his latest 50 Song Memoir is pretty understandable. It’s also unwise.
Like most of Merritt’s LP concepts, this new one is impishly simple: on the occasion of his 50th birthday, the Magnetic Fields return with 50 new songs — one for each year of his life. From there, this material (which stretches across five discs) is otherwise unbeholden to boundaries of genre, mood and taste. It is, like the 69 Love Songs whose comparisons it can’t help but invite, a veritable free-for-all of chamber pop, melancholic indie rock and kitschy synth-driven throwbacks artfully designed for a second-floor apartment dance party. It might not quite capture the magic of Merritt’s landmark work, but it’s the best collection to come from the Magnetic Fields project in at least a decade.
What makes the Magnetic Fields’ best material truly special is its hand-drawn charm and queer lens on longing and melancholy. The percussion on the 1994 LP Holiday was created from hand-drawn wave forms, for example, with Merritt pruning analogue glitches into sounds approximating a drum machine submerged in a bathtub. Merritt’s lyrics, on songs like “Take Ecstasy with Me” — one of the finest in his catalog — matched the left-of-field sonic approach with an often devastating sense of timing and, if required by the world of the song, tenderness: “A vodka bottle gave you those raccoon eyes,” he sings about a dimming innocence and budding romance. “We got beat up just holding hands.”
After a stretch of albums that fell short of this self-set standard — 2013’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea (no concept) is the weakest of these — 50 Song Memoir will frequently remind longtime listeners why they fell so hard for the band in the first place. The washed-out arpeggiator cloud of “Big Enough for Both of Us” or the gigantic but vulnerable territory of “I Think I’ll Make Another World” recall some of the finer moments from the front end of the Magnetic Fields’ catalog. There’s plenty to love here, if you’re looking for it, but 50 Song Memoir likely won’t create many new converts to Merritt’s 21st century output.
Merritt’s reputation as a curmudgeon is well known, but his material is at its best when he forgoes this pose in favor of wide-eyed romanticism. “Have You Seen It in the Snow”, which appears four discs deep, is strong for its ability to engage on those terms without much of a wink. Merritt takes a swing at genuine feeling and it pays off. The sparse and unusual percussion offsets the lush arrangements in a way that carries the song effortlessly through its runtime, and it may leave many listeners yearning for more of those unqualified bullseye moments. It’s a reminder that there are gems to be found here, even if it requires a little more digging than 69 Love Songs.
Many fans will likely wonder why longtime band member and vocalist Claudia Gonson doesn’t get more starring time on this new collection. She supports nicely on songs like “You Can Never Go Back to New York”, but she is relegated to the margins throughout. It’s a bit of a shame, since part of what made 69 Love Songs so singularly charming and disarming was its rotating cast of vocalists who took Merritt’s material to new and unexpected places. (See the gender-flipping duet, “Papa Was a Rodeo”, or the show tune schmaltz of Dudley Klute’s memorable lead on “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”). A little bit of that variety could go quite a long way on 50 Song Memoir.
There’s an understandable tendency to resist much late Magnetic Fields material as corny, joke-driven and contrived. 50 Song Memoir won’t quiet these critics. (In fact, many might just tune out after the kitty cat chorus chimes in on the first disc’s “A Cat Called Dionysus”). But if that’s the metric by which we judge a band like the Magnetic Fields, then we must agree that the band’s marquee 69 Love Songs is not a masterpiece. That record is, of course, a masterpiece; and its warm embrace of kitsch, silliness and punchlines is part of what makes it so. 50 Song Memoir might not lift itself into the same orbit of greatness as its gargantuan twin, but it’s still a strong work from one of the most singular songwriters of the last 30 years.