When Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields was five years old, his mom took him to see Jefferson Airplane. The year was 1970, and Grace Slick had a message about the Vietnam War to deliver to the crowd: “I know we’re not supposed to care, but they’re killing children over there.”
At least, that’s how Merritt remembers it on 50 Song Memoir, an album with one song for each year of his life up to 2015. “Even for my age I was small,” he sings in a deep deadpan as a simple, questioning bass line thumbs behind him. “I thought she meant a massacre was taking place inside that hall.” It’s one of those terrible and hilarious miscomprehensions of childhood: Over there, to a kid who had no idea about the larger world, just means right over there.
This is one of the many, many great punchlines of the lovable and frequently brilliant 50 Song Memoir. But just as importantly, it’s one of the album’s many potent descriptions of how a brush with music can shake up a life.
The influential indie vet Merritt has long used arch nursery rhymes and toy-box arrangements to note the way that feelings aren’t always hitched to intellect: He rolls his eyes at tears, he gags at infatuations, but his characters cry and become infatuated all the same. So it is with his own emotions, here, as he flips through the years with songs closer to curated snapshots than tell-all memoir chapters. But the excellence of 50 Song Memoir lies in the way he leavens his sarcasm with rare moments of childlike wonder—usually to describe his relationships not with people, but with art.