Stephin Merritt is a genius.
He can be spoken of in the same breath as Lou Reed, and with good reason: Both artists brilliantly use the forms of popular song in order to say and do something different. And thankfully, Merritt is still with us, right in the midst of things.
Of his couple of dozens of albums under various different projects since the early '90s (Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies), 1999's triple-album 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields still stands out as his opus, the idiosyncratically varied masterpiece, that won Merritt and the Magnetic Fields a larger following.
Fast forward to now, when Merritt's been offered another chance at doing something wonderfully sprawling. A few months before Merritt's 50th birthday, Nonesuch president Robert Hurwitz suggested that he make a 50-song album for the occasion. By his birthday on February 9, 2015, the prolific songwriter was already recording his 50 Song Project.
Merritt seems to revel in and excel at large-scale projects; this time, it was one song for every year of his life, starting when he turned one. He tried to use seven instruments per each song, and each instrument no more than seven times (the outlier is "'91 The Day I Finally…" which, by the sounds of it, is Merritt playing a one-man-band contraption and walking around banging stuff).
He says he likes to keep things varied, that variety helps records stand up sonically over time, and he's right; you grow to appreciate every whimsical little detail (harp, dulcimer, melodica, sitar, charango, a kazillion kinds of keyboards and synths, pianos, drum machines, flugelhorn and trombone are some of the hundred-ish instruments on the album).
Merritt takes liberties with biography, documentary and time, drawing on his beatnik mother's memories of where they were in his childhood for the early part (they moved around an awful lot, and she dated some real zingers in terms of terrible boyfriends) and getting help from bandmate Claudia Gonson and his own early songwriting after that.
Each topic/song idea/memory acts as a jumping off point for songs that actually often feel dislodged from time — they sort of hover over the present, looking back at the past, and sometimes they offer advice ("79 Rock'n'Roll Will Ruin Your Life" suggests you turn the record down lest you also develop hyperacusis).
Merritt says the record is "mostly love and music," and things get mellower as it goes on. It's true; the heady dance party of his teens and early twenties gradually gives way to beautiful sadder songs like "'01 Have You Seen It in the Snow?" set in New York around 9/11, "'02 Be True to Your Bar," a loving tribute to Dick's Bar (the place he used to hang out and write), the astoundingly good "'04 Cold-Blooded Man" (How can that chorus not have existed before?) and the vulnerable, more traditionally autobiographical sounding "'09 Till You Come Back to Me" and "'14 I Wish I Had Pictures," about the vulnerability of memory itself. There is more longing in the latter part of the album.
But what lingers, along with the musical brilliance and uncharacteristic openness of his 50 Song Memoir, is Merritt's humour; his distinctive baritone delivering countless witty sardonic kernels, sometimes assisted by a well-timed dramatic pause, all wrapped up in catchy, unforgettable songs. (Nonesuch)