It’s been nearly two decades since The Magnetic Fields captured the public’s attention with 69 Love Songs, a triple-CD bonanza of tunes about a single topic. Now the group’s leader Stephin Merritt is ready to offer fans another buy-’em-in-bulk opportunity: 50 Song Memoir, which for the first time finds the tunesmith, usually loath to write songs about himself, doing just that in a big way.
The record won’t be available until March, but Merritt & Co. gave the songs their New York debut this week in advance of a proper tour next spring. (The show’s world premiere was two weeks ago at Mass MoCA.) Broken into two evenings of 25 songs each, the somewhat theatrical production — with a stage decorated as if it were Merritt’s boyhood home, with doll houses and toys scattered among the many musical instruments — presented the songs in chronological order, starting with his conception on Friday (Dec. 2) and ending Saturday night (Dec. 3).
On this occasion, Merritt was backed up by six musicians (with longtime partners Sam Davol and Shirley Simms alongside newer collaborators), all of whom were arranged in an arc outside the faux living room where Merritt sat on a red stool, with the score for this new opus before him.
Though in the past he has often left much of the banter to good friend and sometime bandmate Claudia Gonson, Gonson wasn’t on stage this time, leaving Merritt to work the crowd alone. Perhaps expecting this to be a challenge, Merritt had scripted his remarks, reading them from his lyric book. He would often set the stage for a song with an anecdote; sometimes he’d clarify a factual detail that was misleading in the song to come. After all, as he told listeners early on, autobiography need not necessarily be exactly the same thing as truth.
Judging from the bulk of the first evening’s songs, though, it’s safe to say that Merritt’s mother provided him with a rich variety of life experience. Merritt’s father wasn’t around (they would eventually meet, as he’d recall on night two), and Mom moved a lot — settling briefly in a commune or zendo somewhere, trying out the local religion, and dating men (usually musicians) her son seems almost always to have disliked: The new song “Life Ain’t All Bad,” addressed to one of these boyfriends, taunts “Na-na-na-na, you’re dead now.”
A screen overhead, which accompanied songs with animation, old movie clips, or pop ephemera, also let listeners know what age young Merritt was in a given song. As soon as he became a teen, this “only child with a phobia of other children” started forming bands with them; one song, describing the horribleness of his first band the Black Widows, brags “we made The Cramps sound orchestral…the Shaggs sound like Yes.”
If night one sounded under-rehearsed, and the sound mix made the lyrics occasionally hard to follow, the biographical arc more than sufficed to hold a listener’s interest. Once the songs began to lay out the adolescent Merritt’s musical influences, the evening took on a different energy — introducing us to Ultravox singer John Foxx, NYC’s fabled Danceteria, and (shortly after a lesson in “how to play the synthesizer”) the Magnetic Fields’ first gigs.
Evening two began with a disarming step back from pop culture, evoking twentysomething anxiety in “The Day I Finally…” and then chronicling the “Weird Diseases” that have afflicted Merritt over the years. One of Memoir’s highlights came in “Me and Fred and Dave and Ted,” which depicts a formative young-adult experience living in poverty, while “Be True to Your Bar” offered a semi-comic sing-along about the virtues of alcoholic camaraderie. (If NBC ever wants to remake Cheers with a more realistically downbeat take on everyday drinking, here’s the new theme song.)
Merritt’s biography includes several arrivals in and departures from New York City, which inspired a couple of this night’s highlights: “Have You Seen It in the Snow?” was unironically lovely, a pure tearjerker on the order of his “The Book of Love”; “You Can Never Go Back to New York” single-handedly made a thousand clichéd complaints about the ever-changing metropolis seem naive.
It wouldn’t be a memoir without talk of love, and while Merritt’s amorous ups and downs sometimes hovered in the background, they also anchored the night: “The Ex and I,” midway through the program, provided a wry look at a relationship that, for a while, returned from the dead. Then, after a few songs alluding to heartbreak and tears, the night concluded with “Somebody’s Fetish,” a funny and uncharacteristically optimistic song whose premise — that nobody is so strange that there isn’t someone out there who’ll love them — was backed up, midsong, by what sounded like an announcement that Merritt himself, phobic of others or not, has found someone to love.