Stephin Merritt is an observer by nature. As the creative force behind The Magnetic Fields, an indie-pop establishment, Merritt has spent the past 20-plus years of his life drawing out romance with a microscopic focus and blowing it up to grandiose proportions.
Never mind the fact that he’s got a sense of humor to help make his romanticism less twee. “The demographics of the front row (at my shows),” Merritt quipped in an interview with The Daily Californian, “is basically white male 22-year-olds who haven’t been to enough concerts to realize that the front row is never where you wanna sit.”
Merritt’s vast range of character studies — including a schlub whose car lands him a dream girl for a brief second, a man infatuated with his best friend in drag and a duo of closed-off lovers raised by troubadour parents — feels like the work of an astute, sardonic scholar. He continues that trend with his latest project — the sprawling retrospective suite 50 Song Memoir — which doesn’t so much refract his storytelling gaze unto himself as much as it crafts his idiosyncratic worldview into song, all with a knowing wink.
Though 50 Song Memoir is meant to document 50 years of his life, Merritt isn’t interested in divulging intimate moments in his past. Instead, on stage and on record, he builds signposts that are ambiguous, reluctantly guiding audiences and listeners through minute glimpses of his life’s odd trajectory.
In documenting an orgiastic getaway on “‘93: Me and Fred and Dave and Ted,” he chooses to detail his companions in lust, one-by-one, rather than reveal any motivation for the foursome beyond the fact that they were “vaguely in love.” His teenage angst, captured on “ ‘85: Why I Am Not a Teenager,” is made political by the specter of the AIDS crisis looming in the ‘80s — a fact he only notes offhandedly in the middle of the song. On “‘68: A Cat Called Dionysus,” he devotes a whole three minutes to a cat who doesn’t seem to like him very much.
Merritt is not much for placing himself front and center, though his concert set may not reflect it. At The Magnetic Fields’ two-night stop in the Fox Theater last Sunday and Monday, he was plopped center-stage, surrounded by kitschy home decor and a menagerie of instrumentalists playing at least a dozen instruments apiece. Above him, a large screen stood wrapped in garland, displaying imagery from each song. It veered from the literal (cells and molecules scrambling for “‘92: Weird Diseases”) to the absurdist (bespoken dogs sitting on barstools for “‘02: Be True to Your Bar” — a crowd favorite).
These are the types of immersive, ambitious constructions that he’s toyed around with since the band’s 1999 opus 69 Love Songs, a triptych of meta love songs. But if the production — directed by celebrated playwright José Zayas — rings with any measure of theatricality, it shouldn’t. “It no more feels like I’m starring in a musical than it does when I walk down the street,” Merritt explained.
His knack for storytelling, more than any visual aid, could have entertained the entire room for the evening. The songs were delivered in his traditionally deadpan baritone, but it was worth the price of admission just to hear Merritt’s banter peppered between songs. He waxed, in his bemused deadpan, about sandals and shorts, head trauma, “a little town called El Segundo,” H.P. Lovecraft and his myriad romances — all within the span of an hour.
Oftentimes, his snippy sense of humor — as with most cynical romantics — deflects the softness that runs through The Magnetic Fields’ music.
Merritt’s love letter to post-9/11 New York, “‘01: Have You Seen it in the Snow?,” as he described in concert, doubled as a defense against “the purely aesthetic attacks of (his) mother.” When he told the story of his absent father, also a musician, he was sidetracked by a smarmy tangent. “I always said I would meet my father on the Oprah Winfrey show, hosted by the American actress, journalist, future president Oprah Winfrey,” he said. “But no.”
The Magnetic Fields’ set was most stunning when Merritt leaned into that sincerity without any filter. His performance of “‘02: Be True to Your Bar,” for one, seeped with adoration for his bar of choice: Dick’s, the venue where, famously, most of 69 Love Songs was written. At 52, it seems as if Merritt’s smart-assery has grown into a comfortable knowingness.
That shift did the night wonders. The penultimate song of the evening, “‘14: I Wish I Had Pictures,” was as weepy a song as Merritt has ever written — a lament of old age and the memories that have been lost to gray matter. Coupled with “‘13: Big Enough for the Both of Us,” a grand old love song that deploys a silly double entendre to really get its point across, Merritt seemed to revel in the evening’s sentimentality, even for a moment.
So to close off his life story with “‘15: Somebody’s Fetish” — as in, everybody is — was the only way to end the night. Merritt’s instincts mean that he’ll never go down in history as a sweet songwriter, even if his most memorable works are the stuff of romantic fantasy.