Published Jun 24, 2018To bring his 50 Song Memoir to the stage, Magnetic Fields architect Stephin Merritt split the album in two, performing all tracks in order over two consecutive nights in each city. Whereas the previous night's performance at Toronto's Elgin Theatre, which chronicled Merritt's first 25 years of life, featured a series of disjointed vignettes that slowly introduced the disparate elements of his identity through charming lyrics, this second show, which featured songs 26 through 50, showcased Merritt as we know him now: an effortless chronicler of the many emotional moments between hysterical laughter and torturous depression, told through witty verse and expressive instrumentation.
As the perspectives and subject matter get more complex as Merritt begins writing from more adult perspectives, natural through-lines begin to form. Kicking off with "'91 The Day I Finally...," Merritt introduces his depression with little more than his voice, a giant pole loaded with percussive instruments and a tiny keyboard. A large criticism from the previous night was that his voice wasn't always strong enough to cut through the often cacophonous contributions from his six bandmates, thus this was Merritt's way of making his singular presence known: the video screen above his head was blank and the other bandmates remained silent (save for a hilarious cameo from band member Pinky Weitzman, who had plenty more memorable moments throughout the show, with her background vocals, Stroh violin and singing saw). It set up Merritt's strengths at the jump, and allowed the rest of the performance to follow his lead.
Part of the newfound charm from this second show was the sense of continuity between the years. One's younger years are often punctuated by phases — Merritt's especially so, as he moved cities frequently — but settling down as a result of growing up allowed for smoother, more natural progression between the songs. "'95 A Serious Mistake," wherein Merritt enters a relationship he knows is destined to end in heartbreak, is followed, of course, by "'96 I'm Sad!," a tale of misery and woe made all the more miserable and woeful by the fact that he (and, now, we) saw it coming.
With the more complex subject matter, often centring on love and heartbreak, came more impactful songs. The four-song stretch between "'98 Lovers Lies" to "'01 Have You Seen It In the Snow," in which Merritt finally meets his birth father and experiences New York City in the wake of 9/11, is sombre and heartfelt, replacing the eclectic mania of earlier tracks with an elegiac sentiment reflected in the arrangements.
As with the previous night, the 25 songs were broken up by an intermission, this time following hilarious first-act closer "'02 Be True To Your Bar," an ode to one's favourite watering hole, compounded by images of costumed dogs in bars. Whereas the visuals in the previous night's songs occasionally detracted from the songs themselves, this showcased how abstract visuals could bolster a tune by enhancing its mood — in this case, irreverent yet elegant.
The intermission concluded with "'03 The Ex and I," which again excluded the video screen to focus on Merritt's ill-advised reunion with an ex, putting his wry reflections and dry sense of humour on full display. The final quarter found Merritt embracing a mid-career move to Los Angeles and dating well into his 40s.
The album's structure, in which songs were ordered chronologically, resulted in all of the strongest songs clustering near the middle-to-end of the album, leading to a comparatively weaker first show. Though Merritt has been adamant that there is no central narrative to 50 Song Memoir, the second show justified the power of the concept, where you can chart Merritt's identity coming into focus throughout the night, most prominently regarding love and romance.
Especially on this second show, Merritt's trademark observational humour was on full display, both during the songs and between them in his monologues. As on the album, the 50 Song Memoir took a while to hit its stride, but this second show was the full-on celebration of Merritt's life that the project intended.