Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Review of The Magnetic Fields' "50 Song Memoir"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website last night:

Review Summary: Don't be daunted by the size of this album. While not every single song is a winner, most of it is pretty damned good.

2 out of 2 thought this review was well written

As this album has already been very capably reviewed twice already on this site, I'm going to limit this write-up to either points that haven't previously been made, or to elements I really want to emphasize. 50 Song Memoir, as you probably already know, is a 5-disc, 50-song opus by Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields. It's the band's first LP since 2012's middling effort Love at the Bottom of the Sea, and easily the band's best album since 1999's 69 Love Songs. Something about epic-sized theme albums seems to bring out the best in Mr. Merritt. The concept here is simple -- the album gives us one song for each of the first 50 years of his life.

The first and most important point I want to make about the album is this: Don't be daunted by the album's volume. I'm a huge fan of Merritt's various undertakings, and even my first thought when I heard about this project was "Oh no, not another one." This was partially because working my way through a 5-disc album seemed a little overwhelming, and partly because I feel that his work with The Magnetic Fields has been fairly inconsistent since 2004's i (although his output with Future Bible Heroes has been a lot more even). But not to worry, there are ameliorating factors at work here, and whatever listening labor you have to put in is well worth the effort. 

For one thing, the album isn't nearly as dense as you'd think. 5 discs (for the CD version) seems like a lot, until you realize there are only 10 relatively short songs per disc. The whole thing could have been squeezed into an admittedly crammed 2 discs, but for Merritt's desire to neatly divide each disc into one decade of his life. When you think about it, there are almost 20 fewer songs here than there were on 69 Love Songs, which is usually considered the band's best album. And while I won't try to make the case that every single song is a winner, most of it is pretty damned good. Now you can find more abbreviated versions of the album -- I know that Spotify has posted a 16-song version called Selections from 50 Song Memoir. Nevertheless, I'd advise against going that route. If you do, you're relying on someone else's taste to pick the choicest songs. The Spotify version picks many of the best tracks, including "A Cat Named Dionysius" and "Have You Seen It in the Snow?", but misses several of my favorites such as "Hustle 76" and "A Serious Mistake". Odds are high they've missed some of the ones that would become your favorites too. So don't be intimidated. Dive right into the album, in all of its 50-song glory.

The second thing I want to mention is that for a musical autobiography of an artist known as much for his bouts with depression as for his wry sense of humor and songwriting craftsmanship, this really isn't a depressing album. Yes, there are some quality sad songs -- "Lovers' Lies", "Never Again" and "Till You Come Back to Me" come immediately to mind. But by his own admission, Merritt has mellowed some with age -- he says so right on the album's back cover. So there are a lot more funny songs ("Surfin'), whimsical songs ("London by Jetpack") and even out-and-out silly songs ("20,000 Leagues Under the Sea") than there are songs that will bring you down.

Finally, a couple of things about the music itself. Unlike 69 Love Songs, Merritt himself handles the lead vocals for all 50 songs. You would think that this might get tiresome, but somehow it doesn't. I saw an interview with him recently about why he used Susan Anway as the vocalist for MF's first couple of albums, and he said it was because his present voice sounds like Pavarotti's compared to the way it sounded back then. He's definitely not Pavarotti, but there is something pleasing about his deep bass voice and dry delivery, maybe even something reassuring about it. So for me, at least, his voice never became boring over the course of this super-sized LP.

Instrumentally, the album sounds sparse, but it actually isn't. More than anything, Magnetic Fields has always been primarily a vehicle meant to focus on Merritt's songwriting, so the instruments themselves are usually not in the forefront. There's more going on here than immediately meets the ear, though. According to a video interview Merritt did to publicize this album, each song features seven different instruments (with the exception of the cacophonous "The Day I Finally..." which is done with a Mary Poppins-style one-man band). Many of the instruments are relatively obscure, and from what Merritt said, it sounds as though several of them were falling apart and barely made it though the recording process. In the booklet that accompanies the CD-set (which also contains copies of a handwritten lyric sheet for each song and a nifty little interview of Merritt conducted by his friend and musical collaborator Daniel Handler), the list of instruments that Merritt alone plays takes up half of a page, before you even get to those played by the 13 other contributors. So the musical production is very elaborate and planned out, even when it intentionally presents itself as just part of the atmosphere.

If you are in any way a fan of The Magnetic Fields, or of Stephin Merritt's songwriting or music, I'm going to encourage you to suck it up and plow into 50 Song Memoir. If it feels a little like 50-song overkill, you don't have to do it all at once. They say that the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Take it one disc at a time if you need to. But either way, don't hold back. Because this particular elephant tastes more like steak than chicken. (With apologies for the elephant-eating analogy to the very vegetarian Mr. Merritt.)

Rating: 3.5/5 stars