"When I write my memoirs, You will read them with pain and with shame, You'll be searching in vain for your name. For your bleak, insignificant name."
How the hell do you even review an album like 50 Song Memoir? At 5 CDs, it’s a huge undertaking just to listen to the whole thing. Or at least it seems that way until you realise that the whole thing could have sat snugly on two CDs, then it just seems like it’s a vanity project. Then again, any release which features 50 autobiographical songs, is always going to be a vanity project, so even the title let’s you know what you’re setting yourself up for, so you can’t really complain. At least there will be some variety in vocalists across the two and a half hours, just like there was on the even more epic 69 Love Songs. Err, no. It’s Stephin Merritt’s vocals all the way. So yes, there’s a reason it has taken me nine months to review 50 Song Memoir – it’s taken me that long to even vaguely start to get my head around it.
In some sense there really is every reason to try and poke holes in the most recent Magnetic Fields album. The scale of it is simply silly, having the same vocalist on all fifty songs means that the tonal variety that made 69 Love Songs such a unique experience simply isn’t there, and the fact that it is presented as a box set just because Stephin Merritt wanted it to be, regardless of the increase in retail price, are all perfectly reasonable reasons to balk at 50 Song Memoir.
The trouble is, that’s somewhat missing the point of 50 Song Memoir. The fact that it is unapologetic to the point of disarming honesty about the fact it’s a vanity project sets it apart. Yes, it is spread across five CDs, but you don’t have to listen to it all in one sitting do you? Actually, after months of living with this album, I’ve found that it is best digested in half hour bursts, which as it happens is pretty much the run time of each of the five CDs. Now that is clever. As a result, you may find that you develop a preference for individual CDs within 50 Song Memoir, or even certain sequences of songs. At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying CD 2, and the run of songs from “’76: Hustle 76” through to “’82: Happy Beeping”, but every now and again another sequence of songs leap out and demonstrate Merritt’s songwriting brilliance. This give the feeling of 50 Song Memoir being an album which constantly evolves and shifts depending on the listeners mood.
The result in all of this, is that 50 Song Memoir is a difficult album to review as you would any other album. The things that you might question about it, are also the things that also make the whole thing work as a listening experience. It’s difficult to say which are the best songs, because you might hear them next week and change your mind, simply because you’ve heard it in a slightly different context. It took me months to appreciate the brilliance of songs like “Me and Fred and Dave and Ted” and “Have You Seen It in the Snow?”, but hey, if you got all you could out of an album like 50 Song Memoir within a week, you’d feel pretty short-changed. 50 Song Memoir is an album that can be consumed as a whole, or as bite size chunks, and you get different experiences from it.
All these years after 69 Love Songs, Magnetic Fields fans really had no reason to expect another epic multi-disc album from Merritt and his bandmates, yet here 50 Song Memoir is. Is it a good album? Absolutely. Is it a slightly strange album? Only in the way it is presented, but that’s one of the many things that contributes to making it a great album.