In 2015, the prolific US singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt told Rolling Stone: “I don’t usually write songs about my own life.” Never say never. Less than two years later, the Magnetic Fields – the main vehicle for Merritt’s melodically lush but psychologically droll musical talents – released 50 Song Memoir, a lavish autobiographical concept album that lined up tracks like birthday candles, mapping one to every year of Merritt’s life in chronological lockstep.
Writing 50 songs, let alone 50 half-decent ones, sounds like a Herculean task but Merritt is a long-distance specialist in his chosen field. In a career spanning 25 years, with bands and side-projects as diverse as Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies, his masterwork is still the Magnetic Fields’s 1999 triple-decker 69 Love Songs, a critically adored, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin sprawl of a record. If 50 Song Memoir cannot quite match its beloved predecessor for length, it still apparently contains too much musical girth to be contained in one gig. As part of the last weekend of the 70th Edinburgh international festival, it arrives in a grand old theatre as a special two-night engagement.
Live, the album finds itself halved, and then bisected again: 25 songs a night, in sequence, broken up by an old-fashioned intermission. The staging is equally theatrical, isolating Merritt (now 52) in a doll’s house set surrounded by kitsch bric-a-brac from his personal collection, the staging crowned by a video screen. A multi-purpose six-person ensemble is arrayed in a horseshoe behind him and while the unusual menagerie of instruments – including a concert mandolin, bass ukulele, a Stroh violin (the one with a horn attached), various kazoos and even a circular saw – suggests an imminent lurch into toytown hipster tweeness, the overall effect is one of ramshackle, sonically omnivorous charm.
It is a heavily scripted performance. Merritt intones wry introductions and asides with expert comic timing in a knowing, sometimes self-lacerating tone not a million miles away from Tyrion Lannister. As he notes early on the first night, “autobiography need not be the same thing as truth”, and while the opening suite of songs track his peripatetic childhood, trailing round the US and beyond as his mother fell in with a series of spiritual charmers, every moment of soul-baring despair is matched with Bournville-dark flashes of wit.
Merritt’s greatest asset, beyond the fact that succulent melodies and surprising, scabrous rhymes seem to pour unstoppably out of him, is his rich baritone. It can be heartbreaking (as on I Think I’ll Make Another World, about his scribbled childhood retreats into fantasy) or weapons-grade deadpan (the Casio how-to guide How to Play the Synthesizer is a Flight of the Conchords-worthy
parody). While his songs frisbee between folk and rock, ballads and bubblegum – with even a brief disco detour, complete with a fake TV ad for a cash-in compilation – that obelisk of a voice solidly anchors everything. With tributes to Ultravox’s original singer John Foxx, the legendary New York nitespot Danceteria and even Tetris, the opening night canters briskly through its 25-song allocation, leaving a lasting impression that 80s pop glamour was hopelessly seductive.
Night two begins with Merritt bashing a homemade all-in-one percussion pole adorned with cowbells while singing lustily about the day that he snapped, before reminiscing about a surprisingly stable love rhomboid in an unsavoury, roach-infested New York apartment in Me and Fred and Dave and Ted. If his latter 25 years might suggest a shift toward maturity, these is still no shortage of arch shenanigans, including a celebratory pub singalong that would bring a tear to both Chas and Dave’s eye and a withering takedown of corny surfing songs. But Merritt also imbues exquisite miniatures like Have You Seen it In the Snow? – his tribute to post-9/11 New York – and the affecting, heartsick Lover’s Lies – a forensic accounting of a relationship falling apart in slow-motion – with crushing emotional heft.
Does this two-night blowout succeed as autobiography? It certainly sketches some of the geographical and emotional contours of Merritt’s life but mostly it pulls you into his mordant headspace, to the extent that after so much time in his company, it’s impossible not to see the world through his exasperated, romantic eyes. As a piece of sustained theatre, it certainly earns its standing ovation but it seems a shame that the intentionally airtight structure leaves no gaps for impromptu epiphanies. If Merritt himself were to gain some extra personal insight from the intense act of performing, there is no room for him to share it with his audience. Even after distilling 50 years of himself into a moreish pop smorgasbord, Merritt has still found a way to hold something back.
At Colston Hall, Bristol, 31 August-1 September. Box office: 0117-203 4040. Then touring.