“I am the least autobiographical person you are likely to meet.” —Stephin Merritt, from the booklet for 50 Song Memoir.
Our leading Irving Berlin scholar/analog-synth archivist has bestowed so many straight-faced jokes upon us that you may miss the big one: Sincerity to him is just another novelty. Yes, 50 Song Memoir, the man’s token autobiographical work, gets the flashing-neon exclamation point treatment the same way his albums of songs cloaked in distortion (2008’s Distortion) or beginning with the letter ‘I’ (2004’s i) did. As Robert Christgau noted of Merritt’s 1999 (and possibly all of the last century’s) triple-disc magnum opus 69 Love Songs, he couldn’t have possibly lived them all. In the booklet for Memoir, he maintains that he hasn’t lived any. But he sure knew a lot about his subject, including the observation that we don’t actually know anything. And he somehow knew how to make a triple album more replayable than any of his single discs that came before, or since.
Topping 69 Love Songs was never going to be in the cards for 50 Song Memoir, its five-disc (!) sequel released some 18 years later. But that doesn’t make it any easier to adjust expectations. Merritt ups the ante all sorts of ways: the vocals of regular collaborators Claudia Gonson and Miss Shirley Simms are absent, leaving the deadpan memoirist to sing all 50 tunes, one written for and directly referencing each year he’s been alive. Then these are easily the least catchy and most expansive arrangements of the man’s lifetime, which he’s earned.
Where his love opus adhered to a century’s worth of pop conventions except when it made a point of not (“Experimental Music Love,” though Steve Reich’s repetitions are as pop as anyone else’s, right?), the 100+ instruments on Memoir (listed in order of appearance) lend it all sorts of previously unexplored settings. “The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo” utilizes a simulated Indonesian gamelan orchestra and “Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life” hinges on a psychedelic, “Sunshine Superman”-indebted figure, both major highlights of a collection with no peaks even close to as obvious as “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” or “With Whom to Dance?” much less “The Book of Love” or “Reno, Dakota.” “Judy Garland” died for his sins, we knew that, but it’s the hook riff, a snatch of joyful orchestration straight out of the Bonanza theme, that truly illustrates how she set Merritt free. Occasionally he subtly even changes his songwriting structure, with dynamic stops between verses on “A Cat Called Dionysus” or building the sitar-inflected “At the Pyramid” with a 30-second intro.
His predictably infallible tunes take a backseat to the words though. In some ways, this is Merritt’s first stab at true storytelling, beyond the transcendent vignette “The Nun’s Litany” or the aural Punch-and-Judy joke “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” He’s always been full of obscure referenda (Pantone 292!) and triple-dutch wordplay (“l’amour”/“la mort”) but this time you actually have to tune in to parse out “The little stuff I dreamed about since I was just a zygote / The headless caryatid with her plucky seeing-eye goat” (“I Think I’ll Make Another World”) or think for a bit about “501s are only pants / Back to basics is the death of romance” (“Dreaming in Tetris”). Or you could use the absolutely essential lyric book to learn that “Judy Garland” does more with the Stonewall riots inside 3:17 than an entire disaster film, or that “Happy Beeping” is a John Darnielle-esque memory about a “drummer-jazz-who liked to smirk” jerk that dated Merritt’s mom.
You won’t need the crib sheet to catch his more-or-less origin stories spread across “Foxx and I” (“Liberated from emotions / Exploring other oceans”), “Eye Contact” (“How I hate eye contact / Having to stare, exactly, in fact, where?” and — of course — “How to Play the Synthesizer” (“Modulate the pulse width / Nobody will care”). The wicked “Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life” sums up a generation of Merritt constituents in just one couplet, “I’ve got no use for groupies / Too shy, and too queer,” while “How I Failed Ethics” pits snotball student Merritt against a dipshit professor and wins (“Proverbial tail not between my legs”). One jaw-dropping sequence on disc three abstractly pits AIDS against nuclear war (“Dreaming in Tetris”), crashes through depression over a Waits-like one-man-band device (“The Day I Finally…”) and looks back on the life of an uneasy-to-interview curmudgeon in “Weird Diseases” with a triumphant rebuke questioning if Asperger’s even exists. As the Gothic Archies once posited in song, he is ever himself, finding not one but two separate rhymes for “hyperacusis.”
Merritt’s made plenty of excellent post-69 Love Songs albums but divorced from the weight of a profound concept they’re somewhat undervalued for the seriously formal riddles, puzzles and practical jokes he does best, not to mention the tunes that come to him easier than they ever did his beloved New Romantics.
His second Big Statement doesn’t attempt to do for life what he did for love. It warrants a completely different type of listening and succeeds as writing even if Merritt’s attempts at a more expressive vocal occasionally irritate and five volumes of aural information portioned out in 28-minute chunks is still a damn lot to absorb. But you won’t be sorry to retain a single minute. Flecked throughout are hints that the droll polymath has even experienced some joy himself. So what if a lot of that has to do with making “a thousand sounds you’ve never heard before?” Here’s to the next 950.