“I’m not interested in holding up a mirror to nature, or in expressing my soul,” Stephin Merritt tells me. “I don’t think I would’ve expressed it if it were possible. I’m sort of nasty.” The songwriter, musical and Magnetic Fields frontman is refusing to entertain any noble thoughts of being a romantic or why he need bare his inner self to the world. It’s an irony that this May saw the release of his latest album, 50 Song Memoir, a lavish ‘concept album’ dedicating a song to each year of his productive half century on Earth.
It’s going to take a whole two nights at Brighton Dome to perform this immense work in sequence and entirety this September. If you believe him, Merritt is just as enthralled by the discovery of a Quaker burial ground during the complex’s renovation work. He’s curious about the skeletons workmen have uncovered. “Hopefully we’ll be able to put them onstage…” Today he’s suffering from a considerable cold, which has dropped his voice down almost an octave. But he promises me he’s not being grumpy, in case I’m in danger of misunderstanding his dry humour. “If I don’t feel better by the time of the show, I guess I’ll have to call the doc and get him pump me full of amphetamines.”
Running across five whole discs and demanding two-and-a-half hours of total listening time, 50 Song Memoir is a work which ebbs and flows. Like life, it’s peppered with the bright and the downbeat. Despite its length, it somehow avoids sounding ponderous or repetitive – which is difficult to accomplish on any album.
Merritt has strived to vary production styles across it, particularly on consecutive tracks. “For maximum contrast would be that one song is a whisper and the next a scream. But that would minimise the contrast every six minutes, whilst maximising it every three. I tried to have it go to places you weren’t expecting. Only time will tell if I’ve succeeded in that.” Although epic in nature, each of the work’s individual tracks are finely-crafted moments of precision-cut pop.
In an age of downloads and streaming, 50 Song Memoir weighty form might appear anachronistic. But Merritt refutes my suggesting ‘the album’ is a moribund art form. “It’s never been a very popular thing after 1972. The people who thought in terms of albums rather than songs were mostly prog-rock bands. No one ever ran out to buy the new Yes single in the ‘70s – you wanted to hear the album. I do see this album in tradition of Tales from Topographic Oceans, in the fact it’s a multi-record set and there’s no invitation to come into via a particular song. I would not want to put out a single from this album as that would missing the point.” His lavish attitude to album crafting doesn’t automatically make Magnetic Fields’ output prog-rock, yet it is rock and certainly progressive. You could as easily argue their songs are pointedly non-rock and wantonly retro as well. Sometimes it seems he’s wilfully avoiding categorisation of his music.
Looking back at the last 50 years could simply be a hook to hang his lyrics on and enable a nice long album. Merritt seems perfectly happy to make this, and all his work, shallow and unrevealing – at least where his own story is concerned. He maintains that divulging his social security number would be a better way of informing an audience about his past. “Is it a personal album? I don’t know… and I don’t care,” he says with a throaty chuckle. ”I’ve not put any effort into making it a personal album, apart from you can hear what I like to do in the studio and my wide taste in music.” It does offer an immersing and inventive assembly of perfect vignettes. Dreaming in Tetris takes a look at the HIV epidemic, Be True To Your Bar bemoans fading local social scenes, while Weird Diseases… well that’s fairly self-explanatory.
This is storytelling on an epic scale, told with a variety of different modes. Across its breadth are tales of change, upheaval, loss and discovery. “Even in the instrumental music I do, I’m trying to tell a story. All of the tracks I’ve recorded deliberately go somewhere, and you’re supposed to notice that they’re going somewhere.” Expression doesn’t always have to revolve around an artist’s desperate need for the audience to understand them better. But then Merritt is far from the archetype of an ‘everyday artist’. Just don’t expect him to issue a straightforward memoir. “You’re only 50 once, hopefully. Unless my mother is right about reincarnation, in which case you’re 50 an infinite number of times and on an infinite number of planets. Which sounds very boring.”