Another bit of music-hall high-conceptitude here from Stephin Merritt & Co. There’s a song here for each of Merritt’s 50 years on Earth, with writing begun on his 50th birthday. Not quite 69 but age inevitably brings a slowing down of productivity. Despite the shift from storytelling or meta-songwriting to a more autobiographical lyrical style there’s nothing here to throw long-term fans and enough wit, guile and craft to charm plenty of new ones.
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Worth the admission price alone for the line "some wank the valet" that comes deep within this latest opus from songwriter in chief Stephin Merritt, '50 Song Memoir' has the feel of an idea emerging from a record company thinking....what do we do with him? He's already written '69 Love Songs', he's made a record in the style of Jesus and Mary Chain, a whole album with titles beginning with 'i' and even 'Love at the Bottom of the Sea' an album without a concept that featured a song 'Andrew In Drag' that was so catchy and so funny I still laugh when I think about it.
So this is the ultimate in Stephin Merritt marmite records. If you love him, you'll love it. If you are a fairweather fans it will all be a little too much, if you struggle even with his high water moments such as 'Get Lost' you'll run for the hills. The fact that I've just tuned into a track to hear the words 'Judy Garland Set Us Free' sung in Merritt's baritone over a kind of twee ukelele pretty much sums a lot of the record and so if this sounds like your kind of thing then please go pop a balloon. He's a funny guy that's for sure. On 'Killing Children Over There' he relates the tale of how he took a Grace Slick comment at face value at a Jefferson Airplane concert and thought that kids were actually being massacred in the auditorium. This track is also a welcome sign of the darker end of Magnetic Fields sometimes lost within the archness.
Sometimes the pieces feel like vignettes. The autobiographical lyrics mean that some of Merritt's usual observations on love and life are diluted somewhat. There's a slight feel of tracks being tossed off as he rushed to finish it. At it's best it kind of reminds me of a musical equivalent of David Sedaris - pithy observations of family and childhood - especially vibrant when matched with great tunes such as 'It Could Have Been Paradise' which boasts a brilliant soaring chorus - the sort Merritt specialises in.
This is a hell of a lot of Magnetic Fields to take in in one dollop. It veers from the truly inspired to the throwaway. There's some amazing bits but you'll do well to get through it in one sitting without wanting to strangle him. But you knew that already right?
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