Over two nights at the Elgin Theatre, he sang a song for every year of his life and brought them to life with costumes, video and countless instruments and props
THE MAGNETIC FIELDS 50 SONG MEMOIR at Elgin Theatre, Friday, June 22 and Saturday, June 23. Rating: NNNN
Over the course of two nights as part of Luminato, The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt told the story of his first 50 years in 50 songs, one for every year from 1966 to 2015. Perched on a chair in the centre of what looked to be one or an amalgam of his many childhood bedrooms, surrounded by an assortment of esoteric instruments, dollhouses, a stuffed owl named Hootie and his first electric guitar – more on that later – Merritt would take dramatic swigs out of his water bottle, addressing the audience as the narrator of the play of his life while his band members, partially obscured by the set around and behind him, looked on through its windows like nosy neighbours.
Perhaps Merritt’s fans are the real nosy neighbours. Best known for playfully ambitious, mostly fictional exercises in genre and form, especially 1999’s 69 Love Songs, Merritt accepted a challenge issued by former Nonesuch label head Robert Hurwitz to write his first autobiographical album in the time leading up to Merritt’s 50th birthday. The result, 2017’s 50 Song Memoir, though autobiographical, is actually in keeping with Merritt’s decades-long approach. “Just because something is autobiographical, it doesn’t mean it has to be true,” he told the audience drolly at the beginning of night one. “For instance, my mom [the barefoot beatnik on opening track ’66 Wonder Where I’m From] actually wore shoes.”
True or not, Merritt’s theatrical journey through his life was engaging and entertaining even in the first quarter, when his baritone voice was obscured by a bad sound mix, which was later rectified. His mom showed up a lot in songs and banter, as did her terrible boyfriends, the worst of which was immortalized in ’77 Life Ain’t All Bad.
There are about a hundred instruments on the record, seven per song, each played seven times, and to to avoid repetition, Merritt tried to not have the same pair of instruments on more than one song. Live, he pared that down to fifty, including cello, Stroh violin (a violin with a horn sticking out of it), autoharp and omnichord and all kinds of percussion, ukuleles and keyboard instruments. Chimes were used once, to great effect, on ’86 How I Failed Ethics, to represent traveling through space and time, and on ’91 The Day I Finally… Merritt played a most-likely homemade one-man-band percussion contraption, which sounded a lot like walking around the house smashing pots and pans.
Detuned electric guitar – his first, in fact – provided appropriately atonal accompaniment to The Blizzard of ’78, in which Merritt forms his first band while stranded on a commune in Vermont. It had some of the best, and funniest, lines of the night: “We made the Cramps sound orchestral. That’s an achievement, I guess/As for rehearsal, we made the Shaggs sound like Yes.”
If The Blizzard of ’78 was an exaggeration, more often the songs’ lyrical content contradicted their genres playfully, as on highlight ’74 No, an atheist gospel hymn Hustle ’76, a disco song about a record that never arrived in the mail and ’08 Surfin’, an anti-surfing surf song from Merritt’s California days before he escaped (for the third time) back to New York.
Accompanying each song were visuals on a cloud-shaped screen above. Considering Merritt’s awkwardness – he has said he hates performing – they added another dimension to the songs and helped progress the story, beyond the costume changes that happened each quarter to represent moving into different time periods.
At the end of the first night, which closed with ’90 Dreaming In Tetris, the anxiety of the song, about young men getting AIDS while being distracted by the threat of nuclear war, was at once compounded and also obscured by the anxiety-inducing game of Tetris, which members of the audience played in the air in spite of themselves as the song reached its tragic conclusion.
The songs touched on world events, like the Vietnam War from a five-year-old’s perspective in ’70 They’re Killing Children Over There, but mostly they showed the emotional and musical evolution of a songwriter from a kid pissed off at the adults in his life to a young, broke adult, to a brokenhearted songwriter and finally to someone reflecting back on his life, reaching for memories with beautiful songs like ’01 Have You Seen It In The Snow? and good, albeit corny, advice on ’02 Be True To Your Bar, in which Merritt reverses his usual meta habits, writing literally about the place in which he wrote songs about songs and plays within plays – uh, wait a sec, perhaps he only added another layer of meta there.
It felt true, even if the details were fuzzy.
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