I can think of only one musician foolhardy enough to try a 50-song, autobiographical, five-CD opus like Stephin Merritt's new 50 Song Memoir ( on Nonesuch Records )and that would be Ezra Furman. Nutty as he is ( in a nice way ), Furman would likely shy away from writing a song dedicated to each year of his life, listing them chronologically while being true to himself emotionally and psychologically. The dare in such an escapade is making the concept interesting without straying into pretention and scaring the hell out of us. I mean, really: Fifty songs on five CDs from a singular perspective is a lot to swallow.
Unsurprisingly, Merritt and his band, The Magnetic Fields ( Sam Davol, Christopher Ewen, Anthony Kaczynski, Quince Marcum, Shirley Simms, and Pinky Weitzman ), pull it off with tongue firmly in cheek ( as they ARE The Magnetic Fields ). Between his deadpan humor, stylistic wit and steady baritone as well as the band's precise and warm handling, 50 Song Memoir is engaging, sly, charming, dour and an awful lot of fun.
Sure there are autobiographical details that stick ( Merritt's mildly acidic songs about his mother's life choices is a major thread ) but the discs capture Merritt's angles on adolescence, school, childhood, growing up from the 1970s through the '90s, young adulthood, self-discovery and maturation while filtering it through that ironic voice and cutting humor.
The bonus of the record is pretty obvious in that it reveals a lot about the author. Merritt does not diddle on his queerness, but the clues pop up by name ( Grace Slick, snyth pioneer and composer John Foxx ) and influence ( Alice Cooper of all people, and though he has sworn that he would never make a disco song it is clear that he listened to a lot of it while growing up ) as well as historical incidents that had a clear impact on him. ( Listen to"Judy Garland" and "They're Killing Children Over There," and you get the picture. ) To top that off, 50 Songs gives Merritt the composer a broad canvas to display his gifts, and its pretty clear that he had a blast writing it.
So "Why I'm Not A Teenager," his take on teenage angst, humorously closes with the chorus, "Piss on your dreams/Muffle your screams"and who can't relate to that? Merritt takes on adolescence with a poker-faced sobriety that gets funnier and drier by the minute and the delivery is a big part of the punch line. ( He sings, "When you never get paid/When you never get laid. And you're full of those stupid hormones/And just when they come out with AIDS." )
"A Cat Called Dionysus" starts as a whimsical reminiscence about three-year-old Merritt's pet cat that he kept ( enslaved ) in his toy box ( he's mystified why, though he loved the cat with all his heart, it would claw and piss on him with a vengeance ) before it turns outward and follows Dionysus on his rooftop wanderings after he escapes. "Dancetera," "How to Play A Synthesizer," "Hustle '76" and "Weird Diseases" are punch lines first and songs second, while "You Can Never Go Back to New York" is as close to straight-up Tin Pan Alley as Merritt dare get. "It Could have been Paradise"which recounts a period when he and his mother lived in a hippie communeis defused by the swirling treatment that the Fields give it and they take his barely submerged rage and redress it as pure pop.
My favorite is "Me and Fred and Dave and Ted," which conjures the deceptively solid bonds of youthful comradery with a wistfulness that is disarming. When Merritt croons, "but Ah!/We were young and vaguely in love/Who needed money or drugs?," you can feel the loss of innocence and smell the regret of romance and friendship sullied by cynicism, boredom, lies or age.
Mercifully, when Merritt and the Fields hit Thalia Hall for the first of a sold out two night stand they presented the first twenty five songs on the CD with the next night dedicated to the remainder. Even then, the show was presented as something special and personal.
With him plopped center stage and surrounded by a collection of musical instruments and childrens toys, Merritt looked like a cuddly prisoner of Romper Room. Although the set was a work of theatrical art and was a joy to look at, it effectively hid most of the band and that may have been the point. After all 50 Song Memoir is Merritt's life story ( so far ) and the show more than delivered what it promised; a chance to hear him sing about himself, offer witty banter, show some cool videos ( the set included a projection screen ) and enthrall his audience to no end. It would have been nice if the band came out and took a bowbut apart from that quibble, it was a night of pure perfection.
Heads up: Tickets are already on sale for grand diva Patti Labelle's show at The Horseshoe Casino on Aug. 18, as well the a cappella group Pentatonix ( featuring out members Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying ) show at Ravinia on Aug. 28. As part of its 25th-anniversary celebration, the Empty Bottle will host Big Freedia and The Downtown Boys on May 19.