When: Tue., March 21, 8 p.m. and Wed., March 22, 8 p.m. 2017
Ultimate artistic freedom doesn't always lead to ultimate artistic achievement. Sometimes a certain kind of stricture serves paradoxically as a freeing element that unleashes an entire weather system of creativity. Working under the Magnetic Fields moniker, Stephin Merritt has delighted in giving himself a series of challenging songwriting assignments, united by various limiting factors that would surely have had the storied songsmiths for hire at the Brill Building hiding under their desks. He devoted one record to songs about travel and one to songs that start with the letter "I." Three Magnetic Fields releases eschewed his beloved synthesizers. His best-known and most ambitious work, 1999's celebrated 69 Love Songs, could easily have been a mere stunt, and a painful one at that, in the wrong hands.
His latest, 50 Song Memoir, is out this Friday in five-CD or -LP packages, courtesy of the storied Nonesuch Records. Comprising fifty autobiographical songs—one for every year of the now-fifty-one-year-old's life—it would seem to hold similar potential for artistic overreach.
Fifty. Let that sink in a moment. Paul Simon couldn't even name fifty ways to leave your lover. But we know that if anyone is up to writing a nonprecious song about being a toddler, it's the prematurely cranky Stephin Merritt, who, at age four, grew outraged at Pete Seeger for singing a terrible rhyme in "Little White Duck." Knowing that about the Merritt persona, it comes as no surprise that in a song that looks at his younger years, "'74 No," we learn that the singer did away with many of his delusions while still in his single digits.
Music is Merritt's saving grace, of course. "How to Play the Synthesizer" is a prime showcase for his skills, a cunning sequence of literal how-to instructions in his inimitable deadpan. Beginning with pulsing, oscillating synths, "'83 Foxx and I," features a piquant opening couplet that neatly conjures the thrill of creation, the love of gear, and the writer's naïveté: "Foxx and I have a Roland TB-303/I should think it will be easy miming on top of the bus."
Much to Merritt's chagrin, the record will be downloadable, enabling listeners to pick and choose, or even play on shuffle. He recently told The New York Times, "I live in dread that people are going to download songs out of order, or have favorites." For two nights in Durham, at least, you can hear all fifty songs live, in their right order, just as nature—or at any rate, Merritt—intended. —David Klein