Some music is best for dancing, some for driving, and some for simply playing in the background while working. 69 Love Songs, however, is the kind of music that is best listened to in the dark, letting the various moods wash over you like waves, sometimes crashing, sometime rushing up and back playfully, and sometimes inching along so slowly you’re not sure if they will ever reach the shore before sliding back into the sea. No wonder the Magnetic Fields demand total silence during live performances. Stephin Merritt, who possesses a gift for rhyme that would be the envy of any poet, strongly objects to the label of “indie rocker,” preferring to call himself a “classicist,” and it is hard to argue with him.
When 69 Love Songs first came out, the sheer audacity of releasing such a large set of material at once, all of it based on the same theme, no less, was enough to command much attention. Critics praised the project to no end, hailing Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt as the best songwriter of his era, a throwback to the golden age of songwriters such as Irving Berlin, whom he often borrows from. Now that much of the hoopla has died down, it’s a bit easier to step back and assess whether the three-disc set is deserving of the acclaim it has received. Is it truly a groundbreaking work in popular music, an essential for any music lover’s collection?
It is hard to imagine any other music artist known for romantic tunes getting away with a project like this. A less self-assured soul might have at least tried to expand on the theme to include many varieties of love, yet 69 Love Songs stays pretty much exclusively in romantic territory. Three albums worth of either droll wit or cheesy sentiment alone might seem unbearable, but throughout the collection, Merrit’s deadpan monotone and sometimes exquisite, sometimes overblown music balance the two quite nicely, sort of like if Barry Manilow and Abba got together to write songs with Dave Eggers.
While every song in the collection is about romantic love in some form, the shades of this basic emotion covered in the songs is quite varied, and everyone is sure to find one that perfectly matches his or her own feelings (in fact, many who have bought this album have selected their favorites to create their own “love” mixes). Are you in severe pain from a nasty breakup? Weepers like “I Don’t Believe In the Sun” and “Bitter Tears” are just the thing to wallow in self pity to. Walking on air after meeting Mr. or Mrs. Right? Joyous tunes like “Sweet Lovin’ Man” and “When My Boy Walks Down the Street” are just the ticket. Feeling trapped in a relationship where you feel used and abused? “How Fucking Romantic” and “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” will seem as if they were written just for you. Feeling horny, baby? Try “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” or “Underwear” (if you can stop giggling).
So what do these songs sound like, exactly? Most of them (44) are sung by Merrit, who can sound positively bored at times, yet with the help of the music, he does manage to convey real emotion and a sense of intimacy; so much so that I was quite surprised to read in interviews how he admits to a formulatic approach to songwriting, with little or no personal emotion involved. He may have gotten many of his ideas from such sources as personal ads and advice columns, but it is difficult to believe that he could write so eloquently on the subject without at least some firsthand knowledge, and the music fits both the lyrics and each vocalist like a glove.
Claudia Gonson’s voice, which is clear and straightforward, with no vocal theatrics, graces seven songs, including the “Oh, Mickey” cheerleader pop style tune “Washington D.C.” and the clever, begging to be sung along to ditty “Reno Dakota.” Seven more songs are sung by LD Beghtol, a big guy with a rich, booming voice perfectly suited for the over-the-top charm of “For We Are the King of the Boudoir” and the brief, sparse, yet haunting “Roses.” Dudley Klute, whose voice at times resembles Stephin’s but not so deep, performs on six more songs, managing to hit a flabbergastingly high note in “The Luckiest Guy On the Lower East Side.”
The remaining six songs are performed by Shirley Simms, whose voice can go from angelically pretty and delicate on “Come Back From San Francisco” to full and powerful for the gospel-like “Kiss Me Like You Mean It.” The variety of styles, from synth pop to country to show tunes, has been well-documented in other reviews, but it should be added, and some may disagree, that despite this diversity of sound, from the subtlest of harmonies to the most bombastic instrumentation, the shifts are hardly ever jarring, and the albums have a remarkable unity and flow to them.
Another remarkable aspect of these songs is how almost every speaker comes across as a unique individual, with different backgrounds and reactions to their particular romantic situations. The way Merritt’s lyrics and even choice of vocalists plays with gender roles and expectations (the twist in “Papa was a Rodeo” being a good example) adds to the complexity of these character studies and drives home the idea that while we may all experience and react to these feelings differently, they are common to each of us.
Merritt also touches on themes that, while staying within the context of romantic love (or, in some cases, lust), also manage to encompass broader issues. “Love in the Shadows,” for example, could be about how even people who may be regarded as “freaks” (“The woman with no nose,” “The old guy with the gold eye”) somehow manage to find love if they can find someone to overlook their deformities and find them beautiful. And “Underwear” acknowledges the danger in lust (“la mort, c’est la mort”), but in the end, the speaker feels the risk is worth it (“If there’s anything better in this world, who cares?”).
Since 69 Love Songs is available either as a set or individually, the question arises as to which of the three albums is “best,” and if it is even necessary to acquire the whole set. As for the first question, each disc is so varied that it is impossible to pick the best one, but there are some subtle differences between them. The first disc has the most instantly catchy pop tunes, from the bouncy opener “Absolutely Cuckoo” to the should-be-classic-heard-on-radios-everywhere “I Think I Need a New Heart.”
Disc two is loaded with some of the slowest numbers (“There’ll Be Time Enough For Rocking When We’re Old,” the beautiful “Asleep and Dreaming”), but it also has some of the most danceable (“If You Don’t Cry,” “World Love”). Disc three has probably the greatest variety of musical styles in an already extremely varied collection, with everything from a clever use of Scottish dialect (“Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget,” which translates into “You’ll never get me with child”) to the Gilbert and Sullivanesque and charmingly hyperbolic “For We Are the King of the Boudoir” (“One kiss from me and you’ll see God”). Even as it starts to lose steam towards the end, the jaunty, accordion-driven, “Zebra,” picks things up and ends the musical journey on a high note. The gist of all this is that if you sample the first disc and like it, then, yes, you do need them all.
So it’s all very good stuff, but to go back to the original question, will it be considered a must-have classic years from now? I would venture to say yes, it will; like it or not, there is no denying the genius (or rather, ingeniousness) that went into its creation. There are many good musicians out there today making music for the love of it rather than for commercial success, but few can combine their passion with an equal devotion to precise craftsmanship, pop sensibilities, and plain ol’ bravado the way the Magnetic Fields do. Yes, it is a lot to digest at once—it took me months to gather up the endurance (and find the time) to listen to the whole thing straight through. Luckily, it is equally good taken in small doses, and each listen is bound to bring new discoveries. This set has truly become a lifelong friend to myself and many others, and is one of the best musical investments you could make.