There is no such thing as a typical Magnetic Fields album. Over the course of the eleven albums they have released since 1991, their sound and even genre has changed album to album and song to song. That said, their latest album, 50 Song Memoir, is like nothing else they or anyone else has released. While epic-lengthed albums aren’t a new development (their best known album, 69 Love Songs, consists, unsurprisingly, of 69 love songs), 50 Song Memoir is remarkable not for its length but for the fact that one narrative runs through the entire album. Each song marks one year in the life of Stephin Merritt, founder/leader/heart and soul of The Magnetic Fields, starting with birth and going right up to the recording of the album, which began on Merritt’s fiftieth birthday.
50 Song Memoir by no means gives its listener a blow-by-blow understanding of the events of Merritt’s life. Instead, it provides a glimmer of insight into one particularly important moment or relationship from each year. In particular, the songs documenting the early years of Merritt’s life are mainly focused on his relationship with his mother (he didn’t meet his father until adulthood) and are grounded in her memory as much as his. The fact that 50 Song Memoir does not form a complete, detailed picture of Merritt’s life is unsurprising given his reputation for valuing privacy; he is known for giving pretty cryptic interviews, always dressed in brown. Merritt admits that writing music directly about himself is out of character, saying that “I don’t write autobiographical songs … I’m new to this, really.”
The challenge of digging into this album is that it doesn’t make sense to listen to it in the way most music is currently consumed. Listening to the songs out of order spliced into a playlist of other music works about as well as reading one randomly selected chapter of someone’s autobiography and then putting it down and returning to a different book. The individual songs certainly hold up on their own, but they’re not really satisfying when they don’t come together to provide a complete picture. On the other hand, sitting down and listening to the entire two and half hours of music is perhaps too much of a good thing. The best way to enjoy 50 Song Memoir is, in my opinion, a little at a time: giving your full attention to three or four songs a day and letting the full experience gradually unfold over several weeks.
While 50 Song Memoir is more challenging than previous Magnetic Fields albums that are easier to make sense of and more fun, it more than rewards the effort required to listen to it.