The Magnetic Fields, “69 Love Songs”

69

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #62 – released September 7, 1999)

Track listing: Absolutely Cuckoo / I Don’t Believe In The Sun / All My Little Words / A Chicken With its Head Cut Off / Reno Dakota / I Don’t Want to Get Over You / Come Back From San Francisco / The Luckiest Guy on The Lower East Side / Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits / The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be / I Think I Need A New Heart / The Book of Love / Fido, Your Leash is Too Long / How Fucking Romantic / The One You Really Love / Punk Love / Parades Go By / Boa Constrictor / A Pretty Girl is Like… / My Sentimental Melody / Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing / Sweet-Lovin’ Man / The Things We Did and Didn’t Do / Roses / Love is Like Jazz / When My Boy Walks Down the Street / Time Enough For Rocking When We’re Old / Very Funny / Grand Canyon / No One Will Ever Love You / If You Don’t Cry / You’re My Only Home / (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy / My Only Friend / Promises of Eternity / World Love / Washington, D.C. / Long-Forgotten Fairytale / Kiss Me Like You Mean It / Papa Was a Rodeo / Epitaph For My Heart / Asleep and Dreaming / The Sun Goes Down and The World Goes Dancing / The Way You Say Good-Night / Abigail, Belle of Kilronan / I Shatter / Underwear / It’s a Crime / Busby Berkeley Dreams / I’m Sorry I Love You / Acoustic Guitar / The Death of Ferdinand De Saussure / Love In the Shadows / Bitter Tears / Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget / Yeah! Oh, Yeah! / Experiment Music Love / Meaningless / Love is Like a Bottle of Gin / Queen of the Savages / Blue You / I Can’t Touch You Anymore / Two Kinds of People / How To Say Goodbye / The Night You Can’t Remember / For We Are the King of The Boudoir / Strange Eyes / Xylophone / Zebra

69 Love Songs is exactly what its title promises—an honest-to-god triple album, with said number of tracks spread evenly across three CDs, clocking in at just under three hours. And yes, all of them feature lyrics related periodically to the literal and/or figurative meanings of the word “love”. Such a concept all but dares you to love or loathe it, depending on whether you see it as an encyclopedic stab at creating a personal song canon or just an astonishing, annoying act of chutzpah. Its mere breadth requires far more time and dedication than your average LP; its do-it-yourself aesthetic and occasional outsider art vibe will test many listeners’ patience.

For me, 69LS has special significance as the first album that I pretty much discovered through the internet, about 18 months after its release. I had read a few think-pieces that circulated when it placed high on many year-end critic’s lists in late ‘99, but as a cash-deprived recent college graduate, I was hesitant to blind-purchase what was essentially a box set. You didn’t hear these songs on the radio (maybe on a college station if you were really lucky) and, as for trying to hear them online, neither YouTube nor iTunes yet existed. Still, I was increasingly curious about it. After finally locating a few thirty-second samples (probably on Amazon with now-prehistoric-seeming sound quality), I took the plunge and acquired it. Over the next month or two, it rarely left my three-disc tabletop stereo system.

Wildly ambitious, stubbornly insular and frequently breathtaking, there’s really nothing else like 69LS. That includes the five previous full-length LPs released by The Magnetic Fields between 1991 and 1995. Essentially the ongoing project of singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt, it started out as an ultra-low budget, American indie version of The Eurythmics, with vocalist Susan Anway trilling over Merritt’s cheapo, cereal-box synthesizers. On album number three, Anway left and Merritt fully assumed vocal duties, his morose baritone falling somewhere between a more disaffected Morrissey and Jonathan Richman on ‘ludes. With The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994) and Get Lost (1995), Merritt attempted concept albums centering on, respectively, country music/road songs and travel/escape while slowly beginning to beef up his sound with a core group of musicians, including Sam Davol (cello, flute), John Woo (guitar, banjo) and Claudia Gonson (drums, backing vocals).

Although some selections on the years-in-the-making 69LS could have comfortably fit on those earlier recordings, it altogether feels more expansive. Much of it features people playing “real” instruments such as those listed above (and also ukulele, accordion, autoharp, piano, violin, etc.) Such an array of sounds naturally keeps such a long album from seeming monochromatic; it also successfully reframes Merritt as something other than a one-trick-pony, while retaining a fully discernible, singular sensibility throughout.

Such cohesiveness is all the more impressive when you consider that Merritt employs four other lead vocalists throughout 69LS. Naturally, he does so schematically: two men (LD Beghtol, Dudley Klute) and two women (Gonson, Shirley Simms), all of them assigned two lead vocals a piece on each of the album’s three discs. The multiple singers add variety and texture and of course prevent listeners from having to endure Merritt’s voice for up to three hours straight; that none of them are exactly “traditional”-sounding vocalists also expands the central idea behind The Magnetic Fields’ aesthetic—these are people making music with Merritt in his one-bedroom New York apartment, as opposed to a slickly professional, in-the-studio supersession. One of the album’s most endearing qualities is in how undeniably handmade it comes across.

Of the four vocalists, Beghtol arguably has the most striking presence. Lyrically and melodically, “All My Little Words” is one of 69LS’ most immediate tracks (it’s very nearly Simon and Garfunkel!), but Beghtol’s tender, almost androgynous croon obviously takes it to a level Merritt could never reach himself. Gonson’s simple backing harmonies on the chorus add even more to the song’s plainspoken grandeur—the sort of little subtle touch heard throughout the album, continually revealing new dimensions in its overall deliberate, stripped-down approach.

Having contributed extensively to past releases from the band, Gonson, with her untrained, unflashy voice comes off as Merritt’s female equivalent while also serving as both his confidant and foil—the latter particularly shines through in their duet “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” (which Merritt describes in the liner notes as “a lethal version of ‘I’ve Got You Babe’”.) One could almost go as far to say that, along with Merritt, she’s the glue binding 69LS together: her steady presence is a constant, whether she’s deadpanning her way through Merritt’s more acidic (“If You Don’t Cry”) or sillier (“Reno Dakota”) lyrics or dutifully bringing to life one of the album’s most stirring melodies (the epic-at-nearly-five-minutes “Sweet Lovin’ Man”.)

As with Beghtol, the other two guest vocalists are ringers brought in to accomplish things Merritt vocally cannot. Klute initially sounds like a raspier, slightly more fey, higher octave version of Merritt, but proves capable of such unexpected moments as his charismatic phrasing throughout the New Order-esque “Long Forgotten Fairytale” or that spectacular high note he holds for fifteen-plus seconds at the end of “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”. Simms, on the other hand, is by far the most expressive and versatile of the five vocalists, equally adept at small-scale folk balladry (“Come Back from San Francisco”), Carter Family-friendly gospel (“Kiss Me Like You Mean It”) and percussion-driven protest-pop (lending an irresistible energy to “I’m Sorry I Love You”.)

Together, this project’s immense scope, along with the wealth of voices beyond Merritt’s gives him seemingly limitless opportunity to experiment with genre. 69LS perpetually, stylistically swerves, from pastiches of Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac (“No One Will Ever Love You”) and Graceland-era Paul Simon (“World Love”) to emulating The Jesus and Mary Chain (“When My Boy Walks Down the Street”), OMD (“Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”) and even Gilbert and Sullivan (“For We Are the King of the Boudoir”). He takes on recognizable genres by directly referencing them in the song titles while keeping in line with the album’s overarching theme (“Love Is Like Jazz”, “Experimental Music Love”, “Punk Love”); he also makes ample room for such frightfully specific subgenres as country punk lament (the delectably droll “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off”), sleazy smut-rock (“Underwear”), self-described “Swedish reggae” (“It’s a Crime”), lachrymose piano balladry (“Very Funny”) and even a peppy cheerleader chant (“Washington, DC”).

Just as often, 69LS also liberally experiments with gender. It’s tempting and not inaccurate to call The Magnetic Fields a queer band—after all, Merritt publishes his songs under the imprint “Gay and Loud Music” and a majority of the album’s vocalists identify as gay or at least gay-leaning. It’s clearly an inextricable component of his aesthetic, but Merritt’s too clever to leave it at that. The most explicit “gay” lyric on 69LS is when he sings, “And he’s going to be my wife,” on “When My Boy Walks Down the Street”, which itself presents a more complex blurring of genders than one would expect. Often, Merritt will have a woman sing lyrics apparently written for a man (and vice-versa), such as the hook, “Bring me back my girl” in the Gonson-sung “Acoustic Guitar”, yet the fun comes in questioning whether or not he actually meant it to be a lesbian love song in the first place.

Still, just as sexual fluidity in Merritt’s lyrics is worth pondering over at length, so is the album’s variability in relation to song structure. 69LS might have worked just as well if it contained 69 three-minute pop tunes, but such a vast canvas practically cries out for the cornucopia of forms Merritt dabbles in here. Opener “Absolutely Cuckoo” is the first of many tracks (“World Love”, “Punk Love”, “I Shatter”) that are actually built on a loop, with the melody, lyrics and rhythm deliberately repeating themselves until Merritt decides to bring them to a full stop. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Love is Like Jazz” is totally free-form (almost painfully so), while “Epitaph for My Heart” unsympathetically smashes two noticeably separate short songs together. “Roses” is simply Beghtol a Capella for less than thirty seconds (whereas “How Fucking Romantic” is entirely Klute + finger snaps for twice that amount of time); eight other tracks all clock in at less than 90 seconds (the longest, by the way, is a still relatively short 5:02.)

Perhaps what’s most unique and enduring about 69LS is its unusual malleability. When I first heard it back in 2001, this didn’t factor in as much. Without an MP3 player or even a home computer at my disposal, I always listened to the album on CD players in chronological order, usually one disc at a time (and occasionally all three together when I had hours to kill). To its credit, it all plays wonderfully in sequence—“Absolutely Cuckoo” is an ideal opener/intro, the dinky little synths at the opening of “Parades Go By” are a perfectly funny palette cleanser after the all-out sonic assault of “Punk Love” and the oompah-pah “Zebra” succinctly, unpretentiously brings it all to a close (while also literally taking us from A to Z, song title-wise.)

Thus, it may surprise you to hear Merritt’s claim that at least the first disc was sequenced randomly (in the liner notes, he’s coy about any additional information regarding how he determined the running order). And the thing is, if you listen to  69LS entirely on shuffle, it works nearly as well as a complete, listenable, whole-seeming album. In preparation for this piece, I did just that, randomly beginning with “Xylophone” and concluding, about three hours later, with “The Night You Can’t Remember”. Yes, there was the occasional odd, whiplash-inducing transition (the delicate “My Sentimental Melody” into the in-your-face “Washington, DC”), but then, is that so much rougher than parts of the actual sequence, such as placing the classical-sounding showtune “For We Are the King of the Boudoir” right next to the spazzy synth-pop of “Strange Eyes”?

More so than all the gender-bending and genre-bending and playing with song forms, the idea of 69LS as both structured and yet potentially fluid within that structure renders it the most postmodern album I’ll probably be writing about in this project. If the running order is as fungible as Merritt claims, then one can presumably construct their own favorite version of 69LS without losing much in the process. Given the rise of the iPod in the years immediately following the album’s release, it’s as if Merritt anticipated these new approaches of listening to music on shuffle or creating your own curated, able-to-reorder-at-will playlist of favorite tracks (and you can even conveniently weed out any that you don’t personally care for!)

On that note, if 69LS has its share of songs that, in isolation, range from forgettable to subpar to unlistenable, then why deem it worthy of Favorite Album status? Well, for starters, consider that most great albums are on average 10-12 tracks long, and that 69LS has at least up to twice as many truly great songs scattered throughout it. Although I could write a 10,000+ word behemoth of a piece detailing every last track, for brevity’s (and my sanity’s) sake, here’s a dozen or so favorite moments:

  • The droll asides (“Woah, nelly!”, “It ain’t pretty”) woven into “A Chicken With His Head Cut Off”.
  • Gonson’s final high note (“It makes me drink MOOORE!”) on “Reno Dakota”.
  • The fairly ridiculous “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” ending with the impossibly poignant and sad final line “…until we pass away.”
  • The innate stillness and sense of purpose Merritt gives “The Book of Love” (probably the closest to a standard here, given Peter Gabriel’s cover).
  • Merritt’s deliberately hoary delivery on “A Pretty Girl is Like…”.
  • I pretended you were Jesus, you were just dying to save me; I stood beneath your window with my ukulele,” from “(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy”.
  • How “Papa Was a Rodeo” opens with the lyric, “I like your twisted point of view, Mike,” and masterfully extends a metaphor until it achieves the gravitas of a classic poem.
  • The awesome combination of Beghtol’s higher-pitched than usual tone and Davol’s staccato cello on “The Way You Say Good-Night”.
  • “Busby Berkeley Dreams” evoking watching one of Berkeley’s famed opulent musical numbers but in slow-motion with the sound off.
  • “Acoustic Guitar” not only namedropping Charo and GWAR but also Steve Earle.
  • The unsentimental coziness of “Love is Like a Bottle of Gin”.
  • The groaning puns repeatedly preventing “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long” from lapsing into obscenities.
  • The crystalline hooks and handclaps of “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”, where Merritt gets away with rhyming “composure”, “closure” and “Dozier” (as in Motown tunesmiths Holland-Dozier-Holland).

I could go on and name dozens more, but they wouldn’t add much to my argument for 69LS’ greatness. You can catalog a complete, itemized list of all the album’s triumphs (and clunkers), but in the end, the proverbial whole matters so much more than the sum of its parts. Look, Merritt set out to write and record 69 love songs, and he did exactly that. Not every one of them is of the same sterling quality as “All My Little Words”, but I’d argue that none at all sound tossed off—you can detect on even the basest level the craft that went into making each one. And while it would be a stretch to say all of his lyrics are sincere (as Robert Christgau wrote in his review about Merritt, “If he’d lived all 69 songs himself, he’d be dead already”), you never doubt the sincerity he put into recording all these songs. Over time, 69LS feels like less than just a supersized album and more an expansive, comprehensive compendium of a singer/songwriter’s sensibility at one moment in time, captured for posterity.

Post 69LS, Merritt has kept The Magnetic Fields an ongoing concern, releasing multiple single-length albums driven by overarching concepts ranging from feedback noise (Distortion) and acoustic psych-folk (Realism) to songs beginning with the letter I (i). Additionally, there’s a slew of equally concept-driven side projects such as the self-described The Gothic Archies and The 6ths, where Merritt invites everyone from Sarah Cracknell to Odetta to act as guest vocalists. Perhaps none of these are in quite the same league as 69LS, but it’s hard not to remain intrigued as to what Merritt will try next.* His catalog could very well end up the Great (if Obscure and Secret) American Songbook of its era, with 69LS as its centerpiece.

Next: “’Cause I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up.”

*As I write this, he’s days away from releasing 50 Song Memoir, a five-disc, supposedly autobiographical Magnetic Fields album containing one song for each of Merritt’s first fifty years on Earth.

“All My Little Words”:

“Papa Was a Rodeo”:

“The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”:

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