The stage at the King’s Theatre appears set for a kitsch children’s musical production as the audience enters for The Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir (Part 2); an outsized trompe l’oeil dollhouse is in centre stage, cluttered and surrounded with smaller dollhouses, lamps, microphones, instruments, old-fashioned toys.
The rather grandiose concept behind the performance (and his latest record, 50 Song Memoir) is that singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt has written a song about each year of his life to age 50 and tonight we’ll hear the latter half, from the age of 25 in 1991 to 50 in 2015. Though Merritt’s reputation – gifted, prolific, eccentric, enamoured of numerical structures and creative constraints – precedes him, he cuts the unassuming figure as shuffles onstage in a baggy shirt, slacks and a peaked cap and could easily be mistaken for the average middle-aged American tourist visiting the Fringe.
But then he begins to sing. The opening number, simple as a nursery rhyme, predicts the celebrations he assures us will ensue upon his eventual demise ‘because my life is a joke’, accompanying himself on cowbell, fart sound effect, and then replacing the word ‘joke’ with an actual joke; his distinctive bass voice and wry, self-deprecating humour are immediately unmistakable.
A showily framed projection screen above the stage is used to great and varying effect throughout the show. As backing vocalist Shirley Simms sings sweetly “I wish I’d not been born” to a cheerful, lilting calypso tune, it plays a brilliant, odd little animation about alcoholism. Then on uptempo electropop lament to dangerous romance, A Serious Mistake, things take a still darker turn: the stage is bathed in red light, the screen goes blank, and as Merritt intones ‘When will this comedy turn sour? A year? A month? A week? An hour?’ blood seems to start slowly trickling down its surface until eventually an image comes gradually into focus, gory footage of a beating heart.
Next, in the deliberately overwrought I’m Sad! and highlight Lovers’ Lies, Merritt delicately skewers and almost ridicules his own anguish. The screen shows candy Sweethearts (the American version of Love Hearts) with messages like ‘GREAT KISSER’ and ‘SMELLS NICE’, raising chuckles from the crowd as, over a melodious, sparse, dreampop backing, he croons, “Every word a lie”. Then a more specific story starts to take shape as the flirty phrases give way to ‘WORKING LATE’, ‘HE’S JUST A FRIEND’, and ‘I’LL NEVER LEAVE YOU’, and again our perception of Merritt’s candid, steady, deadpan tone shifts from dryly, playfully rueful to agonised and visceral.
Later, on Never Again, hel murmurs disarming, aching apologies saturated with despair, then launch straight into a scathing disavowal of bad press; he parodies early Beach Boys by poking fun at surfing (“the dumbest of sports”), then bleakly portrays the damage and denial of an acrimonious breakup in Till You Come Back to Me.
The songs are around the 2-3 minute mark and never outstay their welcome, full of surprises and delights, bizarre sounds and unexpected, unaffected rhymes; when he describes “a stir down in my special body part”, then explains “…it’s my heart”, you get the impression he’s being sincere. The little pauses and stories with which most are introduced make the whole thing seem intimate, smooth and, for a man sitting in an outsized dollhouse surrounded by props, oddly natural. Hearing the tracks on the album, as I do the next day, back to back without the commentary, the changes of pace can be frenetic and jarring.
Merritt’s words dart with a singularly light, effortless touch across topics like depression, addiction, his absent father, emotional abuse, and terrorism. To introduce the captivating Have You Seen It in the Snow?, he explains that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11/2001, he was asked to write a song for a Christmas celebration. He reads an excerpt from H. P. Lovecraft darkly deriding Merritt’s beloved New York City, then, quietly reverential, sings his defence. Affection for New York is a tale as old as songwriting time, but, as with so many of his love songs, his earnest, wistful lyrics and odd, dreamy instrumentation make it feel raw, poignant and entirely convincing; a plucked double bass echoes the sound of a passing train.
Merritt seems to look afresh at everything, showing us new angles on familiar scenes, writing about universal experiences in idiosyncratic, direct ways. After the exquisitely melancholy penultimate song, I Wish I Had Pictures, he closes the show with a befittingly quirky ode to kink, risqué neon-outlined silhouettes flashing up on the screen as he solemnly muses, “Nothing’s so weird that nobody does it”. Yet his sweet sentimentality is intact here too; he seems genuinely thankful, awed perhaps, to relate that everybody (“even I, with my wildebeest’s face”) is Somebody’s Fetish.
It’s a strange, beautiful, intimate happy ending, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd, to a strange, beautiful, intimate show in which we’ve met a man who seems almost devoid of ego and all heart. Merritt’s affected indifference seems here to be a thin protective layer containing raw emotion, from impassioned joie de vivre to heartbreak and devastation, all fresh and desperately sincere.
Photos courtesy of Matthew Allen.