Stephin Merritt, the composer and multi-instrumentalist who leads the loose musical collective the Magnetic Fields, has used big ideas to explore different modes of pop music. The group, which formed in 1989, was beloved by fans of the loosely defined genre “indie pop” (think fussiness, emotion, and lots of big melodies), but it broke through with the triple album “69 Love Songs,” which was exactly what it claimed to be; the wide range of compositions contained within included elegiac ballads, an homage to the stardust-sprinkled works of the director Busby Berkeley, and a brief wink at “experimental” music.
Other Magnetic Fields albums have been organized around beginning titles with the letter “I” and shrouding Merritt’s songs in heavy distortion. These releases, which often have stunning moments, have established Merritt again and again to be a shrewd scholar and appreciator of all sorts of American music, as well as the emotions that give pop songs their power.
The irascible Merritt’s latest project, in honor of his hitting the half-century mark in 2015, is “50 Song Memoir,” a five-disc project that allots a single song to a year of his life, in order. That said, reading too much into it might be a stretch: “Autobiography need not be the same thing as the truth,” Merritt noted at the beginning of the Magnetic Fields’ show on Friday at the Berklee Performance Center, which looked at the first half of the set. (The second 25 songs were to be performed Saturday.) Whether or not it’s a straight-up retelling of his life, “50 Song Memoir” is another impressive achievement for Merritt, cycling through gentle psych-folk on
“ ’70 They’re Killing Children Over There,” which uses a Jefferson Airplane show to lovingly recall the overly literal way children receive metaphor, and expansive dance music to portray Merritt’s nights out while attending college in the early-’80s New York of Danceteria and the Pyramid Club.
Merritt and his supporting musicians gave a crisp performance, switching fluidly to instruments both expected and esoteric — bass ukuleles, amplified violins, a hand-cranked music box — as they tackled tracks like the glam pastiche “ ’79 Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life,” the joyously detailed “ ’84 Danceteria!” and the dreamy “ ’71 I Think I’ll Make Another World.” Merritt’s sly punchlines added to his character sketches and tales of disdainful cats and failed ethics classes. Merritt’s meticulously plotted tour through his first 25 years wound though pop’s ever-shifting modes on Friday night, stopping by unexpected places but never wavering from its commitment to craft.
The Magnetic Fields:
50 Song Memoir, Program A
At Berklee Performance Center,
FridayMaura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.