Friday, November 18, 2016

Will 50 Song Memoir Be Another 69 Love Songs?

Yesterday, The Magnetic Fields announced that 50 Song Memoir - the first new Mags album since 2012's Love at the Bottom of the Sea - will be released on the 10th of March, 2017. They also shared the album's cover art, which looks like this:

It's just an image for now, but in a few months' time, it will be a 5CD set (as well as a 5LP set for you vinyl bores) that people can go out and buy and take home and listen to and cherish forever.

The idea behind 50 Song Memoir is pretty intriguing. Magnetic mainman Stephin Merritt wrote the album just after turning fifty years old, and each of the album's fifty tracks represents one year of his life (hence song titles like '66 Wonder Where I'm From and '86 How I Failed Ethics). Spreading the album over five CDs may seem a little self-indulgent given that the more densely-populated 69 Love Songs was squeezed onto just three, but it makes sense if you think of each disc as a decade: disc one will be the first ten years of Merritt's life, disc two will chronicle his pre-teen and teenage years, disc three his twenties, and so forth.

This is the sort of gimmick I love to see (remember when I named Quiet Marauder's 111-track magnum opus MEN my favourite album of 2013?), and it's all the more exciting for the fact that it's The Magnetic Fields doing it. 69 Love Songs may well be my favourite album of all time, and I was thrilled when I learned that Merritt and Co. would be releasing another jumbo-sized album with a similarly large-scale concept.

But will 50 Song Memoir be another 69 Love Songs? Sure, it's nearly as long and equally brilliantly gimmicky, but is it reasonable to expect that it will deliver the same sort of listening experience? I'm thinking probably not.

Don't get me wrong - I'm enormously excited for the big release day in March, and I think I'll quickly come to treasure 50 Song Memoir just as much as I do 69 Love Songs. But I think that anyone expecting Another 50 Love Songs will be disappointed, because 50 Song Memoir - of which I'm yet to hear a note - looks set to be a huge departure from the usual Magnetic Fields formula. Stephin Merritt has never written autobiographical songs before, or at least he's never admitted to it, and the fact that he has openly done so on this occasion means that Memoir is already an ocean away from Love Songs. I'm sure the witty wordplay and the droll lyrics with a tendency to turn on a sixpence and plunge a dagger into your heart will be there in spades, as they have been on pretty much ever Merritt-associated release to date, but I believe that this time around we'll also see a sincerity that Merritt has previously sworn has no place in his songwriting.

69 Love Songs was a compelling and at times very emotive collection, but it was never the real Stephin Merritt claiming not to believe in the sun or grimly confessing to being as mad as a hatter: it was his characters. And one of that album's most important, most defining qualities was the briskness and changeability of its emotional voice: one minute you'd be chuckling at the idiosyncratic analogies of A Pretty Girl is Like..., the next you'd be weeping along with LD Beghtol on My Sentimental Melody

I'm certain that 50 Song Memoir will have bags of variety - just look at the many wild and wonderful instruments of which The Mags have been tweeting pictures from their rehearsal space. But whereas 69 Love Songs was a rattle-bag of styles, stories, emotions and characters, 50 Song Memoir will be an autobiography as much as an instant songbook, and an autobiography demands some level of cohesion and continuity. Even if we once again find ourselves ping-ponging from punk to Prince to music hall, there'll be a thick red thread running through the whole enterprise this time, and I think that alone will make 50 Song Memoir a fundamentally different listening experience from its similarly-sized predecessor.

You can pre-order 50 Song Memoir from the Nonesuch Records website now. If you're so inclined, you can also listen to 5 preview tracks over on, although I personally have decided to keep my ears chaste until I can enjoy the album in full.

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