Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir [Nonesuch, 2017]
You know the drill. Five 10-song CDs that'd fit onto two, and thereby cost less than 40 bucks, with each year of Merritt's life allotted one song and each decade one CD as neatly as 69 Love Songs's three 23-song discs add up to that magic number. But this edition of the Magnetic Fields is barely a band--with occasional aid from Thomas Bartlett, Daniel Handler, and scattered others, Merritt plays over 100 instruments all told and assigns every lead vocal to his own depressive bass. Aptly autobiographical though 'tis, this is a negative, especially on disc two, which also honors John Foxx of Ultravox, who Merritt loved as a teenager and admires today--musically, there are numerous dead spots. Over the medium haul, however, every song is a grower, not merely because Merritt is quite a lyricist but because he's documenting an exceptional life that includes a childhood in a panoply of hippie communes and a young adulthood in a hodgepodge of bohemian penury. And some songs you'll connect with right away. Among my candidates: three-year-old loving a cat who hates him, five-year-old internalizing a Grace Slick rant, 13-year-old upgrading a duo called 1 1/2 into a trio who make the Shaggs sound like Yes, college man failing ethics, college grad loving Ethan Frome, twentysomething enjoying a live-in four-way, thirtysomething XXX-ing his ex, and fortysomething reaccessing a permanently impermanent NYC. But especially, 50-year-old kissing off the most horrendous of his stepfathers and 50-year-old emoting what kinda sounds like a love song. A-