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Arts & Culture

The Magnetic Fields releases new 50-song album detailing musician’s life

Boston-based band's musical autobiography traces yearly experiences in '50 Song Memoir'

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Boston-based alternative act The Magnetic Fields, known for its quirky, self-effacing and conversational lyrics, released “Selections from 50 Song Memoir” to Spotify March 10. The album stays true to the band’s synthetic pop-influenced sound with an emphasis on lead singer Stephin Merritt’s storytelling.

The “50 Song Memoir” project debuted last year on Spotify with a preview EP featuring only five selections from the full set of songs. Last week, Merritt unveiled 16 new songs on the music-streaming platform, though all 50 songs are currently available on iTunes.

The album traces Merrit’s life from his birth until present day. The honest lyrics formulate excerpts of an autobiography, organized by years, according to NPR . The “Selections” version released on Spotify includes a sampling of experiences ranging from 1968 to 2013. The pieces are distinct but remain consistent with the insecure, romantic character developed in many of The Magnetic Fields’ past songs.

Much like The Magnetic Fields’ earlier “69 Love Songs,” the album’s eccentric organization reflects the band’s character as dutifully as the songs themselves. The events and culture of each year inform the lyrics of the chronological anthology. In “’69 Judy Garland,” Merritt describes in his straight-forward, nonchalant style: “We tried to drive to Woodstock but/ Our little blue bug couldn’t cut/ Through that last hundred miles of traffic.” In “’70 They’re Killing Children Over There” he recalls the wartime political commentary of Grace Slick and band Jefferson Airplane, also undercutting contemporary culture, adding “Now that everyone is fat and complacent/ I haven’t heard a protest in years.” In “’84: Danceteria!” Merritt describes “Seeing the Shirelles or ESG,” at a popular New York City night club, juxtaposing a boppy girl group from his early childhood and a more popular ‘80s post-punk group. The references to pop culture rely, to an extent, on cliches such as the title of “’79 Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life.” But these shameless affirmations of pop culture enable Merritt to effectively capture the changing decades through the lens of his own experience.

What makes the album especially appealing is Merritt’s self-characterization. He recalls in “’73 It Could Have Been Paradise” that, in his youth, “Huckleberry Finn was (his) only friend.” In “’86 How I Failed Ethics,” Merritt remembers his own college experience as an angsty, intellectual outsider, singing that he “spent the whole course positing (his) own ethical system/ While other college students emptied kegs.” In “’02 Be True to Your Bar” the listener encounters a middle-aged, isolated Merritt in a musical rut “drinking Irish breakfast all day long.” These eccentric details resonate with the nonconformist demographic that subscribes to The Magnetic Fields. Through his honest and offbeat autobiography, Merritt offers his listeners an opportunity to relate not only to his lyrics but to the cliche of a character he ultimately develops.

The consistently playful synthetic music serves almost as a background for the self-portrait Merritt paints with anecdotal excerpts of life as a musician. “50 Song Memoir” gives the album a unique role — Merritt makes a multi-part memoir of a record that suits his straightforward sound and offbeat poeticisms. The result is two hours, 30 minutes and 15 seconds of nontraditional and informal self-exploration, accessible through “Selections,” or in the full articulation of 50 years.

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