The Magnetic Fields, a notorious indie pop band, have returned with their first full length album since 2012. 50 Song Memoir is exactly what it sounds like, 50 songs written by frontman Stephin Merrit, which individually focus on one year based on events or recollections from his life.
If the concept seems too grand to succeed, think again. The album, which runs for two and a half hours, is the boldest, and most rewarding project the band has released in their almost 30 years of being together. Incorporating a wide variety of genres, from folk to punk and synth pop to hymns, 50 Song Memoir is guaranteed to have a song for everybody.
The Magnetic Fields are distinct for many reasons, but chief among them are Stephin Merrit’s deep bass voice, and the sardonic, pessimistic lyrics, usually centered on unrequited love. Those features remain on this album, although, the constant pessimism is laden with a surprising sense of sentimentality, and a deep love for life. Songs like the opening, “Where I’m From,” examine the frustrations of not knowing what to call home, yet also takes heart in family and friends.
Beginning with the third track, “A Cat Named Dionysus,” in which 3-year-old Merritt deeply loves a cat which in return only hates him, Merrit begins explores his favorite theme of unrequited love. The songs on this album which focus on love are unsurprisingly some of the strongest on the album.
However, there are numerous tracks, which, unusual for The Magnetic Fields, cover topics completely devoid of love. Songs like “No” and “Weird Diseases” are criticisms of religion, while others, like the eulogy to Judy Garland are in a category of their own. These tracks are mostly great, thought some fall short. Really, many songs in this album are inevitably forgettable given the sheer mass of content. None of the albums 50 songs stick out as bad, but some greatly outshine others.
From a production standpoint, the album is a perfect blend of the band’s early synth sound and their later indie folk sound. Songs like “How To Play The Synthesizer” sound like it could have been a track from one of their earlier albums, while others, such as I think “I’ll Make Another World” sound new and fresh for the band.The album, like most of the band’s albums, features numerous eclectic instruments from classic synths to ukulele to the cello, all of which are put to good use and played with great skill.
If you want to listen to the album, but feel as though it will be too overwhelming, don’t fret. The band released a version of the album called “Selections From 50 Song Memoir” which is worth listening to for a start. However, listening to the album in whole is a lot of fun and more rewarding. If you are willing to drop 30 dollars for a physical edition of the five disc album (which I wasn’t) you also get a long interview with a longtime collaborator and musician of the band, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events).
50 Song Memoir is a worthy successor to The Magnetic Field’s last major concept album, the three hour long 1998 album 69 Love Songs, which was literally 69 songs about love. While not particularly groundbreaking or revolutionary like 69 Love Songs, 50 Song Memoir is certainly a more complex and rewarding album
Ultimately, though not a game changing album, 50 Song Memoir is a grand moment in The Magnetic Field’s discography. Going from nostalgic childhood memories, to angsty teen moments, to middle age calamities with Stephin Merritt's cynicism is ironically a joyful celebration of life, love and growing up.