Life has its rules: You choose some; others choose you. This Stephin Merritt knows all too well. Child of a beatnik mom and folk-singing dad he never met until well into adulthood, the singer-songwriter and principal musician of indie pop's Magnetic Fields is both blessed and cursed by circumstance, like all living creatures, although perhaps more so, as his 50 Song Memoir suggests.
Merritt likes a concept and a challenge, and here he's set himself up with a big one: To create an album with 50 songs, one for each unfolding year of his life. Its concept suggested by his label's boss, Memoir is a sequel of sorts to 1999's 69 Love Songs, the opus that transformed Merritt from synth-pop throwback to Cole Porter's stylistic heir. That album's most famous hymn, "The Book of Love," has morphed into a contemporary standard akin to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It's matter-of-factly romantic even as it deconstructs romanticism; old-fashioned yet postmodern, yet still a hell of a tune.
The same can be said of much of Memoir. Boasting over 100 instruments, it's made from Merritt and his cohorts playing seven or fewer instruments on every cut, in different combinations on each, with no instrument used more than seven times over the course of five half-hour discs. There are plenty of vintage analog synthesizers capable of nearly infinite bleeps and bloops, but also dozens of percussion gizmos, stringed contraptions, brass generally absent from rock records and many other strange sound-makers. Even when the chord progressions evoke children's lullabies, as they do on the first disc (whose 10 songs follow the first 10 years of his life), heaps of sonic deviance reflect their creator. Merritt embraces his otherness while tethering it to familiar genres. The autobiography here is musical as well as lyrical.
For example, the first track, "'66 Wonder Where I'm From," is narrated by a newborn already perplexed by his less-than-ideal origins; it's played on ukulele and bass to evoke what the songwriter suggests was drunken conception: "In St. Thomas, barefoot beatniks bonk / On a boat afloat in rum." In alternately guarded and revealing liner notes with satellite Fields member Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame, Merritt explains that he wrote the song by imagining his absent dad as a character akin to John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, one of 1966's key acts. The simple recording suggests instability, as if it were recorded on an unmoored boat capable of drifting any which way.
As we learn in subsequent songs, this was typical of a childhood lacking any sort of metaphorical or actual picket fence. Instead, there's Buddhism set to a sassy cha-cha ("'67 Come Back as a Cockroach"), a defining early unrequited relationship with a cat who "hated me 'cause I loved him" ("'68 A Cat Called Dionysus") and a failed trip to Woodstock that's nearly simultaneous with Stonewall and the passing of a gay icon ("'69 Judy Garland"). Just as the rules Merritt applies to his compositions determine Memoir 's colorful outcome, his transient family situation defines his destiny. Imagination takes over in the absence of financial or paternal security ("'71 I Think I'll Make Another World"). He falls neither for nature ("73 It Could Have Been Paradise") nor religion ("74 No"). For mom's boyfriends, he cares less ("77 Life Ain't Bad").
What young Merritt likes is music. These affections first show up in "'76 Hustle 76," which only intermittently thumps and bumps in praise of a TV-marketed disco album that never arrived. At yet another commune, he starts a band ("'78 The Blizzard of '78") and the folky tones of the first disc that define his nonage surrender to adolescence's discordance.
Straightway Merritt hits garage-rock pay dirt with "'79 Rock 'n' Roll Will Ruin Your Life." Unlike much of his output, it's got a big dumb "Satisfaction"-y riff, as well as the kind of chorus that inspires drunken sing-alongs upon impact. Of course, Merritt can't stop himself from skewering his own song, as if he were both the Stones and the Residents, but it's nevertheless likely to become the album's breakout hit. If someone like Japandroids — whose entire existence is predicated on a belief in rock that's nearly evangelical — were to cover it, Merritt will have scored another classic, one that's also true: Rock gave him hyperacusis, a hearing disability he rhymes with "So turn this record down, or it'll happen to you, sis."
In the '80s, his alliances switch to synths, Brits and New Romantics: "'80 London by Jetpack" features Merritt's flawlessly channeling the Human League's Phil Oakey, while "'81 How to Play the Synthesizer" takes the album's literalism to its logical extreme; its lyrics read like a rhyming instruction manual. We learn in "'82 Happy Beeping" that one of Mom's sadistic, synth-hating boyfriends ripped up Merritt's music theory homework, and it's confirmed in "'83 Foxx and I" that the aspiring musician longed to be Ultravox's John Foxx, who at punk's peak declared he wanted to be a machine.
This was formative for Merritt, who juggles college, menial labor and nearly nightly club jaunts ("'84 Danceteria!" "'85 Why I Am Not a Teenager," "'86 How I Failed Ethics" and "'87 At the Pyramid"). As much as he references genres specific to the time in which these songs are set, he also subverts them: You think you're hearing guitar on "Rock 'n' Roll," but you don't. A prominent acoustic stringed thing crashes "Foxx"'s synth-pop party. "Pyramid" boasts the psychedelic flavors mostly withheld from the '60s material, while "'89 The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo" — which references a masked bubblegum group of the same name that inspired the earliest Magnetic Fields manifestation in 1989 — replicates the exact burst of reverb heard on "Green Tambourine," a deliciously dippy hippie ditty by a related band, the Lemon Pipers. Although initially largely theoretical, the group nevertheless dominates his life, as alluded to in "'90 Dreaming in Tetris": "Make a record, go to sleep / Make another record in your sleep." Merritt is nothing if not obsessive.
If this were an old-fashioned Hollywood musical, Memoir would brighten with his band's birth. But because it's the tale of a gay musician barely surviving while his peers and pals perish, the plot darkens: Depression kicks in ("'91 The Day I Finally..."), and although he's been struck by unusual illnesses since infancy, this is when he enumerates them ("'92 Weird Diseases"). There's a bizarre love rectangle ("'93 Me and Fred and Dave and Ted"), absolute poverty ("'94 Haven't Got a Penny"), willful romantic disaster ("'95 A Serious Mistake") and yet more blues ("'96 I'm Sad!"). Emphasizing how far he's sunk, Merritt belts the latter in a key so low as to make Thurl Ravenscroft, the bass voice behind "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," sound cheery.
Like many of the cleverest lyricists, Merritt's a songwriter first and singer second, but on "'98 Lovers' Lies," he excels at being both. One of his most laconic lullabies, it sits right in the grave spot of his register that effortlessly sighs. His beloved alliteration creeps along as though moving in slow motion, as if his compulsive falsifier has him hypnotized. He finally meets his dad in "'99 Fathers in the Clouds," which serves up another struggle between resistance and reconciliation. Like so many 30-somethings, Merritt can't escape that nagging feeling of entrapment.
When indie-level success finally arrives, the music gains even greater poignancy. "'00 Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers," which, as the song itself states, was written for an Ang Lee musical that never was. Crafted for Kiki & Herb's Christmas show in the wake of 9/11, "'01 Have You Seen It in the Snow?" joins the ranks of the most tender and yet realistic musical love letters to New York; both elegies celebrate persistence. "'02 Be True to Your Bar" describes Merritt's peculiar practice of composing while hanging out in bars listening to other people's tunes. "'04 Cold-Blooded Man" continues his tradition of decidedly non-PC anthems too funny and honest to be completely offensive, and "'05 Never Again" achieves a straightforwardness so much of his work pointedly avoids. He's heartbroken once again, but this time not milking it for laughs.
You may remember back a decade or so when some ordinarily discerning critics deemed Merritt a racist for defending "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" and other misdemeanors of taste. Merritt clearly does, and so "'06 'Quotes'" kicks off the final disc in fighting form. The feistiness lingers through "'08 Surfing?" which neatly acknowledges both his L.A. move and that year's Jesus and Mary Chain quasi-tribute album, Distortion. He still struggles to put the past behind him ("'11 Stupid Tears," "'12 You Can Never Go Back to New York"), but by his unabashedly sentimental "'14 I Wish I Had Pictures," he realizes he doesn't want to move on: To the contrary, he wishes he could remember more. Whether it's a sign of maturity, psychological stability at last, or just respect for storytelling form, "'15 Somebody's Fetish" concludes the album on an all-embracing, sweetly upbeat note honoring polymorphous perversity and, at the very end, his own craft:
"And I, who have wandered alone for so long
On my little island, just like King Kong
Here at the end, I have written a song ... for you."
It's a love song the way the Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is a love song, Merritt's favored form of self-expression and effacement. If you know anything about him, you've learned long ago that autobiography isn't ordinarily his thing, and although some of his top psalms, like "Papa Was a Rodeo," contain lived-in truth, he otherwise excels at making stuff up. It's telling that with all the care and soul and time he's put into this mammoth project that he packages it with a photo in which his racks of keyboards look utterly amazing but he doesn't make any apparent attempt to wear something flattering: Merritt loves music with an all-consuming ardor that eclipses nearly everything and everyone. Even a musicologist like Bruce Springsteen sometimes pens protest songs. When Merritt ostensibly writes about himself, as he does throughout, he's really penning poetry about songwriting itself.
Yet it can be argued that 50 Song Memoir goes one first-person step too far by having Merritt sing every damn tune himself. 69 Love Songs is akin to ABBA, the Mamas & Papas and even the Beatles in that it gives the listener different voices to listen to; a quality missing from most modern music, where the average group is a glorified solo project with backing musicians because fans like wearing T-shirts with band logos on them more than they do some dude's drab name. Although Merritt gets a little more instrumental help than usual, Memoir ultimately feels more like a solo album than even much of his ostensible solo work because his one-of-a-kind croak is so unrelentingly front and central. When "'10 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" features a lovely guitar-plucked intro that lasts nearly a minute, it comes as a relief because we've been hearing Merritt croon two hours practically nonstop.
Of course, it's perfectly logical for a songwriter to sing his life story himself. But think of Luis Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, which achieves much of its surrealist mileage via two actresses inhabiting the same role; or Todd Solondz's Palindromes, which features women of vastly different ages, colors, and shapes all playing the central 13-year-old or Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, where even actors of different genders represent Bob Dylan. Merritt, who's made a career out of kindred mischief, could've vastly broadened Memoir's scope and appeal with some similarly imaginative casting.
Beyond the circularity of his favorite subjects, love and music, 50 Song Memoir is ultimately about transcending, whether it's serious family dysfunction, physical and mental illness, or being queer at the epicenter of what was once labeled a gay plague. Through hard work and strikingly singular talent, its author elevates himself out of absolute poverty, and somehow manages to write dozens of playful and often hilarious songs about it all. That's quite an achievement, one those who label Merritt a misanthrope or worse should take heed. Some of its wordplay is truly remarkable; who else but this guy would write a line like, "I was a dyspeptic epileptic skeptic" to describe himself at age two? More importantly, Memoirs is a tour-de-farce of melody and arrangement. Festooned with all sorts of freaky squeaking yet frequently as catchy as Top 40, it's the avant-garde in service of eternally youthful pop. It's also the opposite — juvenilia in honor of hard-won maturity. How you hear it is, as always, up to you.