This was my final piece for State on a huge project by an artist I’ve loved then admired for well over twenty years. I found this hard to write. There was a bit too much to say.
Not content with one magnum opus, Stephin Merritt now submits a second: 50 songs for his 50 years. He would, wouldn’t he? He has a weakness for the grandiose, and he thrives on a theme.
That said, memoir wasn’t exactly his most obvious next move. Merritt has always declared his lyrics to be fiction, even when they sounded like autobiography. I remember hearing “Time provides the rope / But love will tie the slipknot / And I will be the chair you kick away”, from 1996’s Get Lost, and worrying, though Merritt said not to.
Since 69 Love Songs, the distance between writer and songs has been increasingly clear. Merritt wears his inauthenticity on his sleeve, and is careful even in a terse note in Memoir to include a disavowal of self-disclosure: “It’s mostly love and music, so don’t dig for much of a storyline”.
But dig you must, and you do come away with some understanding of the author.
The songs are arranged chronologically and the first decade and a half stands up as an album in itself. Merritt spent his childhood with his mother, a peripatetic Buddhist who reared him on her own in commune after commune.
Merritt struggled. In ’Eye Contact’ and ‘Weird Diseases’ he alludes to social difficulties and early life autism (“Maybe Asperger’s / If that exists”). ‘Weird Diseases’ recounts childhood seizures provoked by strong emotions that he had to avoid: “From the time I was a young boy / I could feel neither anger nor joy”. It’s a poignant picture; poor kid.
Memoir’s first half is largely the evolution of an artist, and ‘The Blizzard of ‘78’ remembers his first band: “We called ourselves the Black Widows / We weren’t the last or the first / But we were almost certainly by far the worst”.
‘I Think I’ll Make Another World’, the song for 1971, when Merritt was six, recounts his artistic origin story, and is magical. An unmoored and alone young Merritt seized on writing as his route to improving on reality: “I can see another world, and I can make it with my hands / Who cares if no-one understands? I can see it now.”
Coming into Memoir, I was curious about the period when the Magnetic Fields were starting out. Memoir suggests this was, as one infers from Get Lost, not all fun and games.
The Nineties saw friends begin to die, of HIV (‘Dreaming in Tetris’) and by suicide, an option he appears to have considered himself (‘Eurodisco Trio’). Merritt the musician was conflicted: he wanted to create, but he wanted, with the same intensity, to disappear (‘The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo’).
As the decades move on, the intensity lessens. The liner notes don’t apologise: “If things get mellower as 50 looms, that’s life”, writes Merritt, and, you know, you’d hope so. It is a perncious lie that it is better to burn out than to fade away. (Kurt Cobain’s fifty song memoir would also be due right now.)
There are great moments. ‘Be True To Your Bar’ is a serious, sardonic paean to alcohol-fuelled friendship. ‘Danceteria!’ is ebullient (“We don’t always go to school but we always go to DANCETERIA!!”. ‘Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers’ echoes ‘Busby Berkeley Dreams’ and ‘In The Snow White Cottages’ delicately tips the hat to “my poor dear Elliott Smith”).
There are shaggy dog stories (‘How I Failed Ethics’) and engaging trifles (‘No’, ‘Ethan Frome’). There is one song, ‘Surfin’, which I found initially off-putting, but which on further interrogation appears to be an attempt to discourage people in California from hitting the beach, so that Merritt can have the waves to himself. I couldn’t swear to this but there’s a broader point, I think: you can trust some songwriters that they have buried stuff in the songs that will emerge in its own time.
The Magnetic Fields albums from the Nineties are truly magnificent, and they have been anchors for me over the years. When everything is as much of a mystery as it was to me in my early twenties, you latch onto anyone who’s striving to figure it out; in The Wayward Bus, Charm of the Highway Strip, and Get Lost, that’s what Merritt did.
He sang about loneliness, doubt, chaos, and confusion. He took you with him, to where there was always redemption in irrepressible melody. The Magnetic Fields are a feat of solace and salvation, for Merritt no less than anyone else. In the Nineties he sounded like he was fighting for his life, and I think he was.
With 50 Song Memoir, he looks like he’s arrived out the other end. It’s not the end, but it’s a happy ending.