Stephin Merritt sounds like a hunchback singing Cole Porter songs from a bell tower in the city of true romance, and I love him every second for it. He and his Magnetic Fields have made a career out of stress-testing the diamond-cut pop song. They distort the fuck out of it, dunk it in irony, sandblast it with spite—and yet each one comes out gleaming and impossible to resist. The songs work every time because their pleasures—witty rhymes and arrangements, beginning-middle-end storytelling—are ancient.
So I can tell you I was very excited to rip the plastic off his brand-new 50 Song Memoir, out now from Nonesuch Records, and to listen to the whole thing a million times. And I was just as excited to learn that he's going to play the entire album over the course of two nights (May 6 and 7) at the Moore.
The record is Merritt's 50th birthday present to himself, with each track representing a year of his life, from 1966 to 2015. You can find more fodder for numerology in his interview with Vice's Mary H.K. Choi. There are 50 different instruments on the album, seven instruments per song, and each of those seven instruments is played at least once in seven different songs. That leaves one song—I think it's "'91: The Day I Finally..."—where Merritt is just playing stuff that's sitting around his house—pots and pans, toys, etc.
It's unfair, but it's impossible not to compare this new opus with 69 Love Songs, one of the last and greatest musical achievements of the 20th century. If you don't have a five-paragraph essay in your brain about each one of those 69 songs, I am envious of you. Stop reading this article and go listen to that album. Your life is about to get so much better.
As for the rest of us: Though the Magnetic Fields almost always organize their albums around some kind of theme—in i, every song starts with the first-person singular pronoun; in Distortion, all the songs are distorted—the ambition of these two albums are similar, and so the expectation that 50 Song Memoir will share the same orbit with 69 Love Songs is high.
I am not so excited to tell you that, in a world where 69 Loves Songs exists, 50 Song Memoir is a letdown. Several of the tracks, though, do stand comfortably beside Merritt's best work. Here are the greatest hits:
'66: Wonder Where I'm From: Exactly the kind of jaunty but slightly melancholy and searching song needed to address any memoir's initial and central question, which is one of origins. Where is anyone really from? The best lines are the closer: "All the seashells tossed upon the shore contain the oceanic hum. They know where they're from. I wonder where I'm from?"
'74: No: A country gospel call-and-response about the nonexistence of God. "Is there a place dead loved ones go? Is there a source of wisdom that will see you through? Will there be peace in our time? No." Fucking perfect.
'77: Life Ain't All Bad: The album's theme song, one of extreme disdain for a father figure. Hate songs of this caliber are rare and exquisite and to be treasured. If I could quote this whole song, I would, but Merritt savoring every second of the following lines in his low, rumbling voice is tops: "When I write my memoirs, you will read them with pain and with shame. You'll be searching in vain for your name, for your bleak, insignificant name."
'85: Why I'm Not a Teenager: One of the many moving songs on this album wherein Merritt discusses openly the way the AIDS epidemic haunted his life. For him, being a teenager is a time when "you never get paid, and you never get laid, and you're full of these stupid hormones, and just then they come out with AIDS!"
'86: How I Failed Ethics: Aural pornography for Poindexters who have absolutely no qualms with lyrics such as "I declared morality an offshoot of aesthetics and got a failing C for my defiance. So next semester I back to divinity school trotted, proverbial tail not between my legs, and spent the whole course positing my own ethical system, while other college students emptied kegs." Marry me.
'91: The Day I Finally...: As Merritt sings about the day he finally kills himself or dies, he puts the pop song through the most strenuous stress test he's ever devised. He's basically just hitting pots and pans, playing a toy piano, and clapping.
'96: I'm Sad!: The song in which Merritt gives himself a lifetime achievement award for being the person who hates himself and his music the most.
'02: Be True to Your Bar: A drunk's cri de coeur. A call to frequent the places you say you actually love. This should be Seattle's new anthem.
'04: Cold-Blooded Man: Is it a song about people who love only people who are terrible to them, or is it a song reprimanding the United States for electing president George W. Bush again? It's both!
'12: You Can Never Go Back to New York: Because you can't.
'15: Somebody's Fetish: Concluding a 50-song album with a honking little clown tune about there being a little something for everyone, as it were, so completely embodies Merritt's genius for self-deprecation that it almost redeems the entire project. In a brief coda, a sweet, mournful, Irish-fiddle flourish saves the irony with just the right amount of lyrical sincerity.
If the album included only these songs, plus a couple other ones about starting bands, Merritt would have successfully covered the broad strokes of his life and kept only the very best tracks. The record would be gemlike in the way his songs are gemlike. But nobody likes a backseat producer.
And anyway, having to endure a few filler songs isn't the reason why 50 doesn't beat 69. The problem is that the object of affection in 69 Loves Songs is the love song itself, an abstract and useful form people need in order to live. Where else can we (safely) visit our old girlfriends if not in the cafes and bars of old love songs? How else might we test the depths of our new affections if not through the yous and I's of the same? And don't say "film" or "books." We sing before we learn to speak, dick.
The object of affection in 50 Song Memoir, however, is Stephin Merritt, whose memoirs are only interesting insofar as other people's memoirs are interesting. The pleasure lies in identifying with the universal awkwardnesses of childhood and adolescence, and also in learning the lessons of high school and beyond. We couldn't possibly love him more than we love ourselves, and being able to love our precious little problems is what 69 Love Songs allows us to do.
Merritt says he won't put out another high-numbered song project until he's 100 years old. If that's the case, I hope he lives for another thousand years. But even if he manages to do that, it's hard to conceive of him ever producing an album as good as the one he made 18 years ago.
What's an artist supposed to do with that?
To answer this question, we turn to Art Garfunkel. In a letter he wrote to his younger self, which was published on CBS This Morning in 2013, he describes the pain of losing his angelic voice and then gives himself the following advice about moving on with life: "Go to a lower key."
I don't think it's possible for Merritt to hit a lower key, but it's true that 50 Song Memoir doesn't quite reach the bar set by 69 Love Songs. Which is fine. That's one of the highest bars there is.