That’s Life, Isn’t It


The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir – This project was based on an idea someone suggested to Stephin Merritt in 2015, when he turned fifty. He would write and record one song to represent each year of his life, an idea he apparently resisted a bit because he never liked to write straight autobiographical work, but he later decided he could bend the rules a bit. Most of the songs are at least inspired by true events or trends in his life, but not always correct in every detail. It’s sort of a response to what’s probably his most famous album, 69 Love Songs from 1999. As on that one, there’s a great variety in style and instrumentation, yet everything is still unmistakably Stephin Merritt. He mixes a grumpy, melancholy attitude with a heavy dose of humor and wistfulness, coming out with songs that are often dreary, funny, and irresistibly catchy at the same time. I attended a performance at which he premiered the first twenty-five songs back in December (there was another for the next twenty-five the following night, but I didn’t go), and pre-ordered the album right afterwards. It came with a print of the album artwork and liner notes featuring an interview on all the songs (well, except “Quotes,” for some reason) with Daniel Handler, accordion player and writer of the Lemony Snicket books. The music was on five CDs, kind of weird as I think it could have easily fit on two; only one of the fifty songs breaks the four-minute mark. Maybe it was to maintain consistency with the vinyl LP release. Merritt is clear that the songs don’t reflect the styles of their respective years, at least not intentionally. “A Cat Called Dionysus,” the song about his childhood cat who hated him is definitely a stand-out, funny but also kind of sad. Merritt has mentioned that he’s more of a dog person now, specifically favoring Chihuahuas. “They’re Killing Children Over There” is another bizarrely humorous one, about a young Merritt misinterpreting a statement by Grace Slick at a Jefferson Airplane concert as being about children being killed at the venue itself. “Life Ain’t All Bad” celebrates the death of one of Merritt’s mother’s terrible boyfriends, turning trauma bitterness into something entertaining, and featuring Handler on Hammond B3 organ. “No” mocks various spiritual beliefs to a jangly riff and drum machine beat. “The Blizzard of ’78” has a buzzy, out-of-tune three-string dulcimer riff running through it. “London by Jetpack” has a retro-futuristic theme in both music and lyrics. “The Day I Finally…” is a minimalist song with Merritt playing synthesizer and various percussion. “Haven’t Got a Penny” is kind of indirectly reggae-influenced. “You Can Never Go Back to New York” has a mixed mood on how much and how quickly the city changes. The closer, “Somebody’s Fetish,” is an unconventional sort of love song featuring a fun organ part (or at least I think it’s an organ; there are some unusual instruments in use on this record), the song being described by Handler as “a happy ending in a fairy tale sense and a massage parlor sense at the same time.” There’s a lot to digest on this album, and I’ll probably notice more about the other songs later on, but for now I think I’d better go ahead and post the review.

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This entry was posted in Albums, Authors, Daniel Handler, Humor, magnetic fields, Music, Stephin Merritt and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to That’s Life, Isn’t It

  1. Pingback: Tempted by the Fruit of Another Mother | VoVatia

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