Stephin Merritt knew when Magnetic Fields’ contract with Nonesuch Records came up for a renewal because the date coincided with his 50th birthday, in 2015.
Photo courtesy of Marcelo Krasilcic
When he and Nonesuch president Robert Hurwitz discussed its renewal — over lunch at the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar — Hurwitz suggested the voice behind Magnetic Fields should celebrate his half-century on their next album. Merritt immediately devised a 50-song album, and Hurwitz responded enthusiastically.
To some musicians, this might seem like a daunting concept.
But Merritt is the same songwriter who created 69 Love Songs, the Magnetic Fields’ opus that approached the idea of amour from that many angles, lyrically and musically, from ukulele-driven folkiness to synth-pop to experimental sound. Released on Merge Records in 1999, the album is considered a high watermark for indie rock and established Merritt as a skilled composer with an unmatched lyrical wit and sense of melody.
Speaking from his New York home in his dry, understated manner, Merritt explains his approach to the five-record/five-CD 50 Song Memoir.
“I had a rule: no two songs were going to have the same rule,” he says, clarifying, “except for that rule. So I had 50 approaches to autobiography. I didn’t want to make all 50 songs relate to the task in the same way. [A straight memoir] might be interesting, but you’d only want to listen to it once.”
As a result, the subject doesn’t always focus on him completely.
“They’re Killing Children Over There” recounts a 1970 Jefferson Airplane concert he saw, focusing on a comment that Grace Slick made from the stage. “You Can Never Go Back to New York,” he admits, could be about anyone returning to the Big Apple after years of being away. He created “Weird Diseases” from “a list of the various unusual things that have gone wrong with my pathetic body.”
In concert, 50 Song Memoir comes off more like a production than a concert. Merritt’s living room has been recreated onstage, complete with replicas of his dollhouse collection. “So we have a house that you look at. And lots and lots of props,” he says. “And we have 60 instruments onstage. Some of them played by me, most of them played by other people.”
The whole opus is played in order over two nights, for the benefit of the performers and the audience. “It’s so exhausting, there’s no way that we could do it over one night,” Merritt says. “It’s one thing listening to a record, where you don’t have to stay stuck in a seat next to people you don’t know. But to have that much information for that long, I don’t think it would work as a live show.”
8 p.m. Tue., June 19 and Wed., June 20. One night: $30-$40; both nights: $60-$70. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Oakland. 412-237-8300