Finally, an answer to the question “how do you avoid being defined by a triple album containing sixty-nine love songs entitled ‘69 Love Songs’?’ Just make outlandish projects something that you do. ‘50 Song Memoir’ is, at its most basic level, 28% less grand than the original 1999 effort, and it’s not quite as musically staggering either, but very few things are. If you don’t know that first collection, it’s well worth investigating. Whether it’s for the deliciously delivered ‘The Book Of Love’ or the bizarre ‘Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long’, there is a joyous disregard for ‘the rules’, such as they are, on that album. A recent Domino vinyl box set is still in print, should you fancy luxuriating in it all.
But what of this 2017 release? Can Stephin Merritt do it again? Having taken an odd route through self-imposed rubrics (either genre or title related) on the three albums that followed ‘69 Love Songs’ across the Noughties, he then offered up 2012’s ‘Love At The Bottom Of The Sea’ without a concept and, it later transpired, without much staying power either. After a gap of half a decade, this latest, loosely autobiographical set provides a song for every one of the first fifty years of his life. The stylistic variety this necessitates plays to Merritt’s strengths, reigniting the frenetic weaving across eras and genres that a grandiose format enables.
The ham-fisted disco of ‘Hustle 76′ is one of a number of highlights, offering an entirely legitimate opportunity to hurl your limbs around for three minutes while Merritt gives his best dancefloor-banger delivery. ‘Me and Fred and Dave and Ted’, representing 1993, recounts a time of being “young and vaguely in love” with a fond detachment, while 2003’s ‘The Ex and I’ is somehow hilarious despite being so overtly pleased with its one, admittedly rather clever, lyrical conceit: “now every evening ends with XXX ex sex.”
As always with Merritt’s work, the lyrics are well worth a whole study of their own and, thankfully, the packaging of this set more than delivers. I can’t vouch for the CD sized edition, but the vinyl box contains a just-smaller-than-A5 notebook replica with all of his handwritten pages and an uproarious twenty-eight page interview conducted by writer Daniel Handler, who you may know more naturally as Lemony Snicket. It’s not cheap, it’s not an easy listen and it’s not perfect, but it is a tremendous representation of exactly what The Magnetic Fields can do. Put aside a few hours and dig in.