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Stephin Merritt brings his customary playful detachment to his own musical memoir

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For just a second, set aside the task of deciding whether Stephin Merritt is being sincere or ironic. His preoccupation on most Magnetic Fields songs is anxiety: negotiating the desire to live in public with the crippling fear of it. The new Magnetic Fields album, 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch), is a triumph on this front—these 50 songs, each assigned to a year of his life, are Merritt’s customary bite-size popcraft pastiches, but he sings more or less directly about himself for once. This autobiographical connection lends depth to tunes so concise they might otherwise feel slight, as well as to his conceptual gags—the tune assigned to 1983, “Foxx and I,” is a lovingly noodling futurist ode to Ultravox’s lead singer and the Roland TB-303, but in this case it’s safe to assume that at least some of the love is actually Merritt’s. Speaking of Ultravox, Merritt also uses Memoir to address his influences—on “London by Jetpack” he acknowledges (in a theatrical croon over drum machine and strummed guitar) that “my roots are as New Romantic as some critics have complained.” Music nerds and amateur sociologists may enjoy these glimpses of the winding path Merritt followed into indie (through New Pop, camp, and disco, among other things), but more important for the general public is the way the solipsistic conceit of Memoir allows his sometimes-­dinky synth nuggets and affected singing to signify anew. Of course this album is ironic, just like everything Merritt does. But for all his voice’s punky, self-­deprecating wobbliness, he’ll never let you forget that his baritone is glam.   v

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