The Magnetic Fields @ King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 25-26 Aug

Stephin Merritt brings the dramatic, theatrical 50 Song Memoir to exquisite life at the Edinburgh International Festival

Live Review by Lewis Wade | 28 Aug 2017

Stephin Merritt's latest project as The Magnetic Fields has been to produce the brilliant 50 Song Memoir – one song for each of his 50 years which he began recording on his 50th birthday in 2015. To take this on the road he's decided to split the album in half, performing 25 songs each night with the help of six other musicians and over 100 instruments including wind chimes, singing saw, an electric sander, bass ukulele, stroh violin, and a whole lot more besides. 

Given the prominence of the venue and lack of support act, it feels much more like theatre than a traditional concert. The stage set-up is immediately striking: an open-facing dollhouse garnished with various tchotchkes taken from Merritt's house; Hooty the owl, a tiki bar, spaceships, actual tin dollhouses and a wide array of instruments ranging from normal to vintage to toy. The other musicians surround the dollhouse, and are often obscured in favour of the elaborate centrepiece. Above this is a massive screen featuring videos, animations, pictures or helpful information throughout the show.

The music is immaculate – testament to a meticulously perfectionist arranger – and brings the autobiographical nature of the show to life in a way that is neither laboured nor monotonous, but simply an organic result of thoughtful composition, portraying an interesting and varied life without being overwrought or expositional. But that's just the album, and its flow perfectly encapsulates the peaks and troughs (adolescence, parents, depression, romance, lessons learned and mistakes made) that make up a life.

Merritt is on typically sardonic form, despite the clear onset of an unmentioned cold. He offers contextual titbits between songs, helping to fill in the autobiographical gaps that some of the songs keep cryptic. These are read from a large book that also presumably has musical cues and lyrics, as it is frequently referred to throughout the show. There is no pretence of spontaneous banter, adding to the theatrical, performative aspect of the show.

There are a lot of laughs across both nights, through the songs themselves and their introductions, but also moments of poignant reflection – of particular note is the heart-wrenchingly beautiful 01 Have You Seen It in the Snow?, a touching love letter to New York in 2001, which provides one of the most emotionally potent moments of the two nights.

Elsewhere, there is the hilarious 68 A Cat Called Dionysus, highlighting Merritt's low register; 90 Dreaming in Tetris with its perfectly paired visuals; 76 Hustle 76 with its discofied beats; 91 The Day I Finally... that opens the second night with Merritt, his shamanic music stick and droll a cappella. Finally the existential lament of 14 I Wish I Had Pictures that teases the end with a melancholic hue before 15 Somebody's Fetish arrives to close things on a note of brash positivity.

There isn't enough space to really begin to explain the variety of joy, pathos and wit that this show provides – each song, stage direction, visual and prop could be parsed and analysed to see how it serves its purpose in delivering a perfectly cohesive whole. Suffice to say: if you have the opportunity, see this show.