The Magnetic Fields has been known to write a whole lot of songs about one subject, the prime example being the epic “69 Love Songs” that came on three discs and a boxed set in 1999. The 2004 album “I” had songs all starting with the letter i.
Now, bandleader and writer Stephin Merritt accepted a more complex challenge from his record company. To mark his 50th birthday, it was suggested that he write one song for ever year he’s been alive.
The resulting “50 Song Memoir,” out this month on Nonesuch, was issued on five discs of 10 songs each.
Its release is accompanied by a 12-city tour that brings all 50 songs, in order, over two nights at each city. Its second stop last weekend was Washington, D.C., where nothing was going to stop the order of each evening — 25 songs a night, no more no less.
Even the death of Chuck Berry Saturday warranted only the slightest deviation from his scripted path, when he shouted “To Chuck!” before the planned performance of his sardonic “Rock ’n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life.”
Merritt has been dabbling in stage musicals over the years — it’s a natural for his droll and melodic material. And the stage set up for “50 Song Memoir” was nothing if not theatrical, with a pink-edged playroom with flowered wallpaper, festooned with all manner of toys, arcane instruments, tin doc houses, lunch boxes, robots and animal creatures.
In the center, Merritt sits atop a red stool and reads from a music stand each confessional little reference to his upbringing. He played only fleetingly the occasional ukulele the first night, even fewer on night two, when he began with a percussive stick, affixed with bells, cymbals, a tambourine.
The set isn’t just to bring to mind Merritt’s personal “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” but as an elaboration of the kind of glass baffles he’d use in a band to muffle the sound of the musicians all around him. (The baffles here are dressed up like picture windows, as if his playroom is an enclosed porch addition).
Merritt didn’t live long enough in one place to have a specific room like that from his childhood to draw upon. By his own admission, he lived in 33 places in 23 years, because of a rootless mother in a hippie heyday, who was drawn to cult leaders and mystics in all corners of the country from New York to Hawaii to Vermont.
When Merritt was just five, his mom drug him to a Jefferson Airplane show at the Fillmore East, where Grace Slick in an antiwar rant, reminded the audience “They’re killing kids over there!” Merritt thought she was referring to another part of the hall and was terrified. He wrote about it, using her phrase as a title.
When he finally met his father, he’d be well into his 20s (therefore, chronicled with a song on night two), and he was shocked to learn that the traveling folksinger also wrote musicals, hence he observes in the song “A Serious Mistake” “We’ve both written songs danced to by Richard Gere.”
Merritt’s mournful chamber folk hymns are sung in a bottomless baritone, adding to their compelling appeal. Writing about the turns in his life — from relationship to relationship; his moves from New York to L.A. to New York again; days when he was penniless by day, pop pretender by night — his musicality and wry point of view lightened the sometime dark pictures he painted.
There was a nod toward electronica (albeit on outdated instruments) to reproduce his “New Wave Years,” when he was inspired by New Romantics, formed the Future Bible Heroes, and imagined himself as one with Ultravox singer John Foxx.
Backing musicians behind him were largely out of view as they played dozens of interesting, generally non-rock instruments, from cello and violin to marimba, prepared piano, dulcimer, congas and electric sitar, amid many others.
A standout among them was Pinky Weitzman, singing backup as well as playing an army of instruments including a Stroh violin, with its distinctive horn attachment. For a few songs, she played a musical saw, which got funny on “Danceteria!” when cellist Sam Davol also added a power saw.
The band also included such longtime members as Shirley Simms on bouzouki and other instruments and Chris Ewen on keyboards, but also Anthony Kaczynski on guitars and Quince Marcum on percussion.
Looking like a bus driver in his cap and series of brown shirts and sweaters, Merritt is quite a talented songsmith, who should probably continue writing the 15 musicals he says he wants to complete. “50 Song Memoir” is somewhat confessional and usually tuneful, but not completely revealing look at his life.
Its one song per year format has the trappings of a parlor trick, and many of the ditties are quite undeveloped, dying out after a verse or two — even in the case of some of the strongest melodies, such as “Have You Seen it In the Snow?” a lovely valentine to New York that could stand a little more fleshing out. (Its sentiments are also somewhat negated by the song representing 2005, “Never Again,” in which he says “Lately I can’t take New York in the snow”).
Before the second night’s intermission, “Be True to Your Bar” is an amiable drinking place rallying cry, written along the lines of the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School,” a band that also comes to mind during the thoroughly anti-surfing tune “Surfin.’”
Of course Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” concerts use all manner of interesting instruments as well (though he keeps the dollhouses and lunch boxes at bay).
The exercise could have ended nicely with the nostalgic “I Wish I Had Pictures,” mourning his lack of snapshots that also doubts his own memory: “I’m just a singer, it’s only a song, the things I remember are probably wrong.”
But he follows it with the oddball polysexual “Somebody’s Fetish,” a less satisfying summation.
Directed by Jose Zayas, with clever projections by Alex Basco Koch, “50 Song Memoir” plays out like a one-man musical, with its fancy set by Arnulfo Maldonado and scripted quips between songs. It’s like a play, too, in its inability to be spontaneous in any way.
Merritt has already scored an off-Broadway musical of “Coraline” and discusses adaptations of Jules Verne’s “2,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” during the “50 Song Memoir.”
His clever wordplay and keening sense of melody could enliven stage productions of plenty of lives other than his. But this one is pretty great.
The setlist for the Magnetic Fields Saturday and Sunday was:
’66 I Wonder Where I’m From
’67 Come Back as a Cockroach
’68 A Cat Called Dionysus
’69 Judy Garland
’70 They’re Killing Children Over There
’71 I Think I’ll Make Another World
’72 Eye Contact
’73 It Could Have Been Paradise
’75 My Mama AIn’t
’76 Hustle ’76
’77 Life Ain’t All Bad
’78 The Blizzard of ’78
’79 Rock ’n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life
’80 London by Jetpack
’81 How to Play the Synthesizer
’82 Happy Beeping
’83 Foxx and I
’85 Why I Am Not a Teenager
’86 How I Failed Ethics
’87 At the Pyramid
’88 Ethan Frome
’89 The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo
’90 Dreaming in Tetris
’91 The Day I Finally…
’92 Weird Diseases
’93 Me and Fred and Dave and Ted
’94 Haven’t Got a Penny
’95 A Serious Mistake
’96 I’m Sad!
’97 Eurodisco Trio
’98 Lovers’ Lies
’99 Fathers in the Clouds
’00 Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers
’01 Have You Seen It In the Snow?
’02 Be True to Your Bar
’03 The Ex and I
’04 Cold-Blooded Man
’05 Never Again
’07 In the Snow White Cottages
’09 Till You Come Back to Me
’10 2,000 Leagues Under the Sea
’11 Stupid Tears
’12 You Can Never Go Back to New York
’13 Big Enough for Both of Us
’14 I Wish I Had Pictures
’15 Somebody’s Fetish