Rewinding the Decades With the Magnetic Fields

In their new album, 50 Song Memoir, frontman Stephin Merritt reflects on 50 years of life.

Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields (Courtesy of the Magnetic Fields)

For most artists, writing an expansive and probing autobiographical album would probably dredge up deep feelings of nostalgia or provide a liberating emotional release.

Most artists, however, are not Stephin Merritt, the sardonic, droll, and brilliant creative force behind the synth-pop group the Magnetic Fields.

Peeling back the layers of his life for his epic new five-disc album, 50 Song Memoir — the first time in Merritt’s lengthy career that he writes from a nonfictional point of view — did not trigger any great spiritual awakening. It amounted to just another day at the office.

“I don’t see why people think that self-expression should be cathartic,” says Merritt, whose band plays on Sunday, April 30, and Monday, May 1, at the Fox Theater in Oakland. “I’m not the type of person who can’t keep a secret and feels great relief when I get to tell people something. I’m happy to have thousands of secrets that I just forget quickly.”

The idea for the quintuple-album came at the behest of Bob Hurwitz, former president of Nonesuch Records, which released 50 Song Memoir on March 10. Merritt, famous for his mordant humor and could-give-two-shits attitude, gamely took up the suggestion for the memoir-as-album theme after doing a little background research and determining that no other artist had attempted a similar undertaking.

Coming up with 50 years of material (he began recording the album in 2015, when he hit the half-century mark) did not prove the least bit daunting for Merritt, whose most famous piece of work is the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, another sprawling, thematic production. In fact, Merritt says the hardest part about making 50 Song Memoir was coming up with rhyming schemes.

“Truths don’t usually rhyme,” Merritt says.

Every song on the new album is prefaced by a year, starting in 1966 when Merritt turned 1. Some of the lyrics deal specifically with the frontman, while others delve into unrelated events or happenings from that year. The album references the death of Judy Garland, stories of the Vietnam War, a brutal winter snowstorm, and the AIDS tragedies of the 1980s, often in ways that personally relate to Merritt.

Merritt says he made conscious decisions to avoid repetition — he didn’t want every track to be about monumental news stories from days of yore. Instead, the songs vary from incidental, random memories to painful recollections and self-effacing moments.

There are tunes about family pets (“68: A Cat Called Dionysus”), struggles with illnesses (“92: Weird Diseases”), and controversial moments from Merritt’s past (“06: Quotes”). The last song touches upon accusations of racism leveled against Merritt by Sasha Frere-Jones, then at The New Yorker. (The beef started when Merritt said he doesn’t like hip-hop.)

With its wide range of musical textures — spanning from gloomy synth-rock to baroque chamber tunes to noisy pop nuggets — the scope of 50 Song Memoir naturally recalls the landmark feel of 69 Love Songs. But Merritt doesn’t consider the new album to be any sort of spiritual successor to his 1999 creation.

“At first, I was afraid that people were going to think that 50 Song Memoir is just another 69 Love Songs,” he says. “Then I realized that they think that about every record I put out, so my trepidation vanished.”

The concept-album conceit is nothing new for Merritt. He previously wrote an album where every track started with the letter “I” (the aptly-titled i), made one laden with feedback (Distortion), and produced another that was almost entirely acoustic (Realism).

Merritt says there isn’t anything strange about working under certain strictures for albums. Every band does so.

“The Rolling Stones have the idea of a blues-based, white R&B band that they gradually change according to various theme albums,” Merritt explains. “There is no one more basic than that band, and they do all sorts of theme albums.”

While Merritt downplays the scale and ingenuity of his latest release, he says that the album could be taxing to perform live. Unlike other Magnetic Fields albums, Merritt sings on every one of the tracks — he also played every instrument — and for his performance in Oakland, he’ll be reciting 50 songs over two nights. That’s a feat of memorization that should draw kudos from his legion of devoted fans.

But for those expecting to hear older Magnetic Fields material or planning on going for just one night, Merritt has some words of guidance.

“There is no point in only seeing one night,” he says. “It would be like only seeing half a movie. Do not buy one ticket to my show. Buy both.”

That kind of advice is unsentimental, blunt, and above all, true. In short, it is pure Stephin Merritt.

The Magnetic Fields
play at 8 p.m. on Sunday, April 30, and Monday, May 1, at the Fox Theater. $39.50-$49.50;

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