The Magnetic Fields at Colston Hall, review: Stephin Merritt at his best

Stephin Merritt likes a concept album in the same way Freddie Mercury liked a sequin jumpsuit, which is to say, unashamedly, and very much. This is not to take for granted the Magnetic Fields leader and celebrated indie-bard’s skill and prolificity over a career spanning three decades and some striking, high-concept achievements.

These include 1999’s 69 Love Songs, a preposterously consistent, multi-disc celebration of pop music and its favourite subject. Less celebrated but nearly as rewarding is the output of the 6ths, another of Merritt’s bands, which employs a selection of vocalists to create an ante-mortum projection of what a Stephin Merritt tribute album might sound like.

However, while in previous works Merritt has written from behind a full-length veil of artifice, new album ‘50 Song Memoir’ a warts ‘n’ all autobiography - with one song for each year of his life.

Over two nights, Merritt delivers a show built around this memoir. The menagerie of lead vocalists has been been quietly culled with Merritt trusting his own droll, lugubrious delivery across all 50 tracks.

The music by contrast is as varied as it is crafted and the set of songs genuinely works as an autobiography, with numerous throughlines, mostly concerning Merritt’s mother, various lovers and multiple hometowns.

The live show adds further embellishment with spoken passages to wittily join the narrative dots and 50 short films, projected above the pink childhood bedroom in which Merritt perches.

The sheer effort and glorious detail within all of this is Merritt at his best. On stage he has the nonchalant air of a Soho dandy (albeit with the dress code of a Soho cabbie) but this conceals what must surely have been a period of painstaking creativity to bring together such a generous spectacle.

Highlights are dotted throughout but the set certainly starts to sparkle as Merritt reaches his mid-teens. He is visibly moved - throwing a few shapes for the first time - as he recounts giving himself over to inspirational music (‘Foxx and I’) and to New York nightlife (‘Danceteria’).

From thereon there is humour and drama in equal measure. We learn about four-way studio flat shares (‘Me and Fred and Dave and Ted’) and Merritt’s distaste for surfing (‘Boring people go surfing/In those horrible shorts’). But he also opens up about his absent father (‘Fathers in the Clouds) and harmful infidelities (‘Serious Mistake’ and ‘Till You Come Back To Me’).

Unlikely as it seems, this quintuple album is Merritt’s most consistent collection since the feted 69 Love Songs. Somehow writing in large batches - and to an ambitious concept - seems to suit him, as does singing about his own rich and interesting life.

Dan Farmer is on Twitter @farmerdan

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