PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | The Magnetic Fields has been known to write a whole lot of songs about one subject, the prime example being the epic 69 Love Songs that came on three discs and a boxed set in 1999. The 2004 album I had songs all starting with the letter i. Now, bandleader and writer Stephin Merritt accepted a more complex challenge from his record company. To mark his 50th birthday, it was suggested that he write one song for every year he’s been alive.
The resulting 50 Song Memoir, out this month on Nonesuch, was issued on five discs of 10 songs each. Its release is accompanied by a 12-city tour that brings all 50 songs, in order, over two nights at each city. Its second stop last weekend was Washington, DC, where nothing was going to stop the order of each evening—25 songs a night, no more no less. Even the death of Chuck Berry Saturday warranted only the slightest deviation from his scripted path, when he shouted “To Chuck!” before the planned performance of his sardonic “Rock ’n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life.”
Merritt has been dabbling in stage musicals over the years—it’s a natural for his droll and melodic material. And the stage set up for 50 Song Memoir was nothing if not theatrical, with a pink-edged playroom with flowered wallpaper, festooned with all manner of toys, arcane instruments, tin doll houses, lunch boxes, robots, and animal creatures.
In the center, Merritt sits atop a red stool and reads from a music stand each confessional little reference to his upbringing. He played only fleetingly the occasional ukulele the first night, even fewer on night two, when he began with a percussive stick, affixed with bells, cymbals, a tambourine.