In 2002, when I was a sophomore in college, the coolest dude on campus made me a mixed CD. There was a song on it called “Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” by The Magnetic Fields. It was whimsical, but also weighty; catchy yet odd; it was very specific and long and winding, but I could still insert myself into its story. “So you share secrets with Lou / But we’ve got secrets too / Well, one / I only keep this heap for you.” Like so many songs from the prolific Stephin Merritt—who founded the band in 1989 with his friend from high school Claudia Gonson—this one told a story that was funny, world-weary, and even triumphant—if you allow that Merritt’s kind of triumphs are particularly qualified, defined with a really good sense of humor, from the kind of clear-eyed realist that he is.
I brought the CD home with me that summer and played the track in the car on my way to my horrible waitressing job, introduced it to my parents, and put it on for my brothers. Isn’t this guy so funny and knowing and real? I ask-informed them. Merritt’s world, in a nut shell, is beautiful, tragic, and funny, or, about as close to How Things Are as you can get. It’s also an antidote for times that feel very bad. If there were ever a moment for misery loving company, Merritt is gifted at recognizing each of them, and making music out of it. Plus, Merritt’s voice is incredible, an imperfect bass that sounds like there are a bunch of pebbles rattling around inside of it. After you hear the singularity that is The Magnetic Fields, you will want to listen to more and more.
Which is lucky, because you can. Closing in on 30 years of song-writing, The Magnetic Fields has released 11 albums (most notably the acclaimed-by-everyone 69 Love Songs, on which “Luckiest Guy” appears along with “The Book of Love,” played at weddings everywhere and covered by both Peter Gabriel and the Nairobi Chamber Orchestra, who once performed it for President Obama in Kenya). And now, the latest, 50 Song Memoir—Merritt’s first nonfiction work that includes a track pertaining to each of the 50 years he has lived—will release on March 3.
But first, we get to hear it in Brooklyn. Tonight. And tomorrow. At BAM. And it is going to be a real show. Merritt, in a septet of musicians, will perform the album in full over the course of two nights with many of the 100 instruments (from ukulele, to piano, to abacus) that went into making it. And the stage is going to look great, too. There are promises of a tiki bar, shag carpet, and vintage magazines “for the perusal of idle musicians.” So, if your ears are not already thrilled enough, you get to look at a bunch of cool ephermera, including musical artifacts collected by Merritt over the course of his music-making life (think analog things, like a reel-to-reel tape deck, for example).
If you miss this chance, I’m very sorry. Truly. But there is a 12-city tour that will follow, if you happen to be outside of New York, and the album to look forward to in March. Meantime, you can hear five tracks from 50 Song Memoir already released on Spotify (“’93: Me and Fred and Dave and Ted” is an especially gratifying display of classic Merritt).
So get ready to go there fifty new ways. Life is hard. And The Magnetic Fields don’t try to tell you otherwise, but with them, all of it sounds and feels—in true Merritt estimation—at least marginally better.