Often the best musical outings are the risky ones. Moments of contrary musical skepticism, where the talent breaks through and decimates the expectations. An album like Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged” album, or “Kid A” by Radiohead. A project that goes outside the boundaries a little bit and then—somehow—pays off heavily.
The Magnetic Fields putting on an autobiographical concert would have been an absurd notion previously—I mean, why would they? While Stephin Merritt’s lyricism has always been of the absolute highest quality, it has never been personable. Now, we have not just a couple reflections or a quick cash-in tell-all, but a jubilant and witty two-night concert of total grandeur.
50-Song Memoir premiered Friday and Saturday night at MASS MoCA in the Hunter Center. It was packed and the atmosphere was ideal. The stage was decorated with items that implied significance to Merritt, along with an eclectic range of instruments, notably including Merritt’s very first guitar, which he played slide on for one song.
The Magnetic Fields album does not actually come out until March 3 of next year, so the band has requested that we not spoil it too harshly with gossip—this was the world premiere. So, this review will tread cautiously in terms of actual details from the show.
Needless to say, it was a success. In his interview with me two weeks ago, Merritt remarked that the new album may sound a lot like listening to all the Magnetic Fields records at once, and that is definitely the case. There’s echoes of all their work here, from the very synth-centric and melody focused, to the eclectic and experimental. Wry and humorous lyrics, and quiet moments of deliberate heartbreak. The power of Merritt’s baritone vocals is seemingly endless—there is nobody else in the world that sounds like him.
In anticipation of the show, and the upcoming album, the band’s current label—Nonesuch Records—released a five-song sampler from the album online, as well as an exclusive CD given out for free at the shows. The songs feel carefully curated to best represent the album, with one from each of the five decades presented. Perhaps the best of these is the song “No” a sort-of anti-love song, cynicism for the ages.
Other personal song highlights included:
“A Cat Called Dionysus”, “Hustle 76”, “The Blizzard of ‘78”, “A Serious Mistake”, “Have You Seen It in the Snow?”, and “Somebody’s Fetish”. That said, almost every one of the songs was rewarding in one way or the other. The fear with such a vast performance is the dreaded presence of filler, which is virtually not an issue here. Merritt always keeps things interesting, with cultural references at the right moments, witty puns and wordplay and of course, that quintessential Merritt stage-banter between songs, hysterical, and there were definitely a few times where the whole audience was chortling in harmony.
The new album will be out on March 3, 2017. Preorder it here: http://www.nonesuch.com/albums/50-song-memoir
The Magnetic Fields will continue their 50-Song Memoir performances in the following dates:
Dec 2 and 3 – Brooklyn, NY
March 15 and 16 – Philadelphia, PA
March 18 and 19 – Washington DC
March 21 and 22 – Durham, NC
March 24 and 25 – Knoxville, TN
March 27 and 28 – Atlanta, GA
April 14 and 15 – Boston, MA
April 19 and 20 – Chicago, IL
April 22 and 23 – Minneapolis, MN
April 27 and 28 – Los Angeles, CA
April 30 and May 1 – Oakland, CA
May 3 and 4 – Portland, OR
May 6 and 7 – Seattle, WA