Stephin Merritt can be a tough interview. It’s not that he’s nasty, or has nothing to say. But he can be exacting, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. When I lived across the street from him in Manhattan’s East Village, just as the Magnetic Fields were garnering mainstream attention, it wasn’t unusual to walk out of my apartment and come across him doing a photo-shoot, Eeyore glum, with Irving, his chihuahua, nearby. “The Happiest Man In The East Village,” a friend ironically called him. Unnerving might be a better adjective; he has a way of pausing after a question, which feels like cross-continental dead air, leaving you unsure if he’s pondering or simply speechless at the banality of the question. When he does talk, his answers are thoughtful, pointed and exacting, or just what you’d expect from a composer who could have worked in both Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, a sly lyricist who not only rhymes “fancy” with “Delancey,” then nonchalantly tops it with “necromancy.”
So when Merritt insisted “I don’t think I have a persona,” that came as something of a surprise. Anyone who has followed his career, whether as frontman of the Magnetic Fields, Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes or as ringmaster of the 6ths, is familiar with his downcast, wryly droll, mordant manner — a kind of 21st Century Oscar Levant — and deadpan baritone vocals. They imply a very strong persona. When informed of this fact, he pauses, musing on that for a moment, and says, “I’m the same off-stage as I am in the songs. But I’ve never presented myself as a character.”
That statement certainly is true. Merritt might be one of the most astutely observational songwriters of his generation, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that the Magnetic Fields’ 2004 release “i” included nine songs written in first-person singular. Which makes you wonder why he would undertake “50 Song Memoir,” Magnetic Fields’ latest release, which is exactly that: five CDs, 10 songs each, each song chronologically representing one year of his life.
||| Stream: “’74: No”
It wasn’t his idea, he admits. It came from Robert Hurwitz, the president of Nonesuch Records, the band’s label, who told Merritt he should mark his 50th birthday by writing one song for every year he’s been on the planet. His first impulse was to make sure no one else had done anything similar. Once that question was answered, he decided to take Hurwitz up on his idea. He enjoys working on themed albums because “when the songs are overtly connected they seem to mean more,” although he “quibbles” at the idea of albums such as “Distortion” (a wonderful collection that featured the best use of a fuzz box since the Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut) or “Realism” (an album that self-consciously avoided electric guitars) are themed, insisting that “50 Song Memoir” is his first themed collection since 1999’s acclaimed “69 Love Songs.”
However you want to classify it, “50 Song Memoir” is a stunner. Raised by his mother — a ’60s hippie seeker with a series of unreliable musician boyfriends, including one who stole a song Merritt wrote as a child — his early years were peripatetic. The settings range from to Warholesque parties (“’69: Judy Garland”), a Jefferson Airplane concert where Odetta opened (“’70: They’re Killing Children Over There”), to various ashrams and communes (“’73: It Could Have Been Paradise”). He’s concerned, even now, that his mother doesn’t come off as a monster. She was the only person who had veto power over the songs; her only issue was with punctuation: In one song he used a colon to set off a lyric, she told him it should be a comma. The pause colon, he was told, denotes a longer pause; she said no one would hear the difference. As someone who can so deftly use a pause, he’s correct. When informed that’s the case, he comes back with a quick “take it up with her.”
||| Stream: “’86: How I Failed Ethics”
A former editor, he says he’s glad there were no fact checkers on the album. If there were, they wouldn’t have let him get away with bumping up his age a year on the “’78: Blizzard of ’78.” He was 12 at the time, not 13. The reason for the change? “Nothing rhymes with twelve.” (The song does manage this wonderful couplet: “We made the Cramps sound orchestral. That’s an achievement, I guess / As for rehearsal, we made the Shaggs sound like Yes,” followed by silence.) He did check with the friends mentioned in “No!,” a listing of their odd beliefs, that they still held them.
He sighs audibly when asked if learned anything about himself while writing the songs. “I dreaded being asked this question,” he says, adding that it’s the one question he’s always asked. His reply? After a mid-length pause, “No.” The hardest songs to write, he says, were the first two (“I don’t have any memories from then”) and the last (because “I haven’t processed them”). He didn’t feel it necessary to read any autobiographies or memoirs to prepare himself for the project. In fact, just before he started, he had picked up Grace Jones’ memoir, but put it down to read once the album was done (“a great book”). There was also no need, he said, for the music to match up with the year it represented. If he did that, he’d only be able to use his electric sitar (one of the 102 instruments he’s credited with playing) on two or three songs, and, he exhales — as though the answer is obvious — why would he want to do that?
||| Stream: “’’93 Me and Fred and Dave and Ted”
Listening to the album, it’s clear why. The album is a master class on songwriting; no two of the songs are alike. While the horn fills on “’69: Judy Garland” do nod to British psychedelic pop, the song — with its syncopated bass, that horn, the twittering percussion and clouds of noise buffeting adult talk (about, among other things, the Stonewall riot, the death of Judy Garland, Andy Warhol) — sonically reproduces the way a child would experience a party. But “’83: Foxx and I,” a mash note to John Foxx, sounds as grand, chilly, and romantic as Ultravox, and the next year’s “’84: Danceteria” precisely mimics the tribal/motorik sound heard there.
The earliest songs — “’66: Wonder Where I’m From” and “’67: Come Back As a Cockroach” — have a nursery feel. The former, which turns a child’s question into an existential quandary, rides on a gently strummed National resonator ukulele, an instrument with a childlike, plinking sound; the latter is preschool conga line with an Edward Gorey-esque litany of warnings. There’s the Spoke Jones-esque whoopie cushion that punctuates “’77: Life Ain’t All Bad,” whose “na na na na” chorus teases “you’re dead now/so I sing/Life ain’t all bad”; the onomatopoetic joke of “’91: The Day I Finally …” And “’02: Be True To Your Bar” is a gently anthemic beauty that’s easy to imagine as an Act II curtain closer.
||| Stream: “’02: Be True to Your Bar”
He was not true to any one bar while he lived in Los Angeles. He looks for “atmospherically lit gay bars with seating,” he says “not too loud or smoky.” A pinball machine, he notes “is a plus.” But there wasn’t a single bar that fit the description, so he would hit a different bar each night. His favorite was the Gold Coast, “the easternmost bar in West Hollywood,” when it’s wasn’t too loud. It reminded him of “Manhattan when artists and eccentrics could still afford to live there.” Merritt, who moved to Los Angeles in the century’s first decade because of the rent, lived on Griffith Park Boulevard in Los Feliz (the lush, almost forlorn “’07: In The Snow White Cottages”) left a few years later “because the commute was 3,000 miles.” Judging by the off-kilter gimcrack of “’08: Surfing?,” the beach was not a lure.
It shouldn’t be an issue when Merritt brings the roadshow production of the album to UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday and Friday. It’s an “extravaganza,” he says, with a seven-piece band, sets, props, and animations. He didn’t think is would be a good idea to go on the road with people mentioned in the songs, so a few Magnetic Fields regulars, including Claudia Gonson, Merritt’s long-time collaborator and on-stage foil, will not be along this time. It promises to be a wonderful experience: “50 Song Memoir,” performed over two nights, 25 each night.
||| Stream: “’13: Big Enough for Both of Us”
But he was nonplussed when asked if the band will perform any older songs at the end of each evening. “Are you serious?” he asked immediately. No pause; he sounded disturbed, if not to say offended, by the idea. When informed that some bands, after playing their new album from start to finish, return to perform a second set, or an encore, featuring their hits. “We don’t have any hits.”
No hits? That statement might give his audience pause.
||| Live: The Magnetic Fields perform “50 Song Memoir” over two nights, Friday and Saturday, at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Info.
||| Also: Stream more of the album via Spotify