Songwriters are forever looking inward for inspiration. But The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt has taken the tradition to extremes with 50 Song Memoir, a five-disc album chronicling his life up to his 50th birthday.
This suggests an orgy of naval-gazing. However, Merritt is a wry and self-deprecating lyricist and the vicissitudes of his life become a prism through which to contemplate the human condition — the single ‘A Cat Call Dionysus’, for instance, uses Merritt’s troubled relationship with a family pet as springboard for a meditation on insecurity.
The conceit was carried through to his new live show — a two-night performance of the entirety of the record, bracketed with darkly witty narration from the singer and an artsy video show.
What it wasn’t was a conventional Magnetic Fields concert. His long-serving band, led by pianist, Claudia Gonson, has been expanded to a more anonymous ensemble.
They were literally left in the shadows, with Merritt at the centre of a stage arranged to look like his cluttered living room and adorned with keepsakes (such as the cuddly toy, which, in youthful impoverishment, he had purchased instead of buying food).
As conveyed in the frontman’s wounded croon, the material was deeply affecting.
‘Fathers in the clouds’, about the parent he never knew, blended wry lyrics and a heart-breaking melody; ‘Have you seen it in the snow’, a valentine to New York in winter,
was preceded by a reading from pulp horror writer, HP Lovecraft. All bases had officially been covered.
In a demonstration of having your cake and eating it of which Boris Jonson would be proud, ‘Eurodisco Trio’, meanwhile, was an ode to Merritt’s 1990s electro band, Future Bible Heroes, performed in the fashion of a 1990s electro band.
Rarely has gazing into one man’s soul yielded so many insights into the painful, joyous, hilarious reality of being alive.
Star Rating: 4/5
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