Monday, 3 August 2020

The Magnetic Fields ‎– 69 Love Songs (1999)

Genre: Electronic, Pop
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: [PIAS] Recordings, Circus Records, Merge Records

1-01.   Absolutely Cuckoo
1-02.   I Don't Believe In The Sun
1-03.   All My Little Words
1-04.   A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
1-05.   Reno Dakota
1-06.   I Don't Want To Get Over You
1-07.   Come Back From San Francisco
1-08.   The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side
1-09.   Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits
1-10.   The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be
1-11.   I Think I Need A New Heart
1-12.   The Book Of Love
1-13.   Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long
1-14.   How Fucking Romantic
1-15.   The One You Really Love
1-16.   Punk Love
1.17.   Parades Go By
1-18.   Boa Constrictor
1-19.   A Pretty Girl Is Like...
1-20.   My Sentimental Melody
1-21.   Nothing Matters When We're Dancing
1-22.   Sweet-Lovin' Man
1-23.   The Things We Did And Didn't Do
2-01.   Roses
2-02.   Love Is Like Jazz
2-03.   When My Boy Walks Down The Street
2-04.   Time Enough For Rocking When We're Old
2-05.   Very Funny
2-06.   Grand Canyon
2-07.   No One Will Ever Love You
2-08.   If You Don't Cry
2-09.   You're My Only Home
2-10.   (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy
2-11.   My Only Friend
2-12.   Promises Of Eternity
2-13.   World Love
2-14.   Washington, D.C.
2-15.   Long-Forgotten Fairytale
2-16.   Kiss Me Like You Mean It
2-17.   Papa Was A Rodeo
2-18.   Epitaph For My Heart
2-19.   Asleep And Dreaming
2-20.   The Sun Goes Down And The World Goes Dancing
2-21.   The Way You Say Good-Night
2-22.   Abigail, Belle Of Kilronan
2-23.   I Shatter
3-01.   Underwear
3-02.   It's A Crime
3-03.   Busby Berkeley Dreams
3-04.   I'm Sorry I Love You
3-05.   Acoustic Guitar
3-06.   The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure
3-07.   Love In The Shadows
3-08.   Bitter Tears
3-09.   Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget
3-10.   Yeah! Oh, Yeah!
3-11.   Experimental Music Love
3-12.   Meaningless
3-13.   Love Is Like A Bottle Of Gin
3-14.   Queen Of The Savages
3-15.   Blue You
3-16.   I Can't Touch You Anymore
3-17.   Two Kinds Of People
3-18.   How To Say Goodbye
3-19.   The Night You Can't Remember
3-20.   For We Are The King Of The Boudoir
3-21.   Strange Eyes
3-22.   Xylophone Track
3-23.   Zebra

Accordion – Daniel Handler
Banjo, Lead Guitar, Mandolin – John Woo
Cello, Flute – Sam Davol
Piano, Drums, Percussion – Claudia Gonson
Songwriter, Producer – Stephin Merritt
Vocals – Claudia Gonson, Dudley Klute, LD Beghtol, Shirley Simms, Stephin Merritt
Effects, Vocoder, Ukulele, Classical Guitar, Twelve-String Guitar, Lap Steel Guitar, Guitar, Electric Guitar, Electric Bass, Mandolin, Autoharp, Zither, Sitar, Violin, Saw, Keyboards, Synthesizer, Piano, Harmonium, Electric Piano, Organ, Drum Machine, Recorder, Ocarina, Tin Whistle, Electronic Wind Instrument, Melodica, Jug, Xylophone, Kalimba, Cymbal, Rainstick, Chimes, Maracas, Congas, Bongos, Triangle, Bells, Tambourine, Washboard, Steel Drums, Shaker, Finger Cymbals, Pipe, Harp, Finger Snaps, Cabasa, Cowbell, Gong – Stephin Merritt

There's only one question that really needs to be asked of 69 Love Songs: is it a brilliant masterpiece or merely very, very good? The title alone is enough to send music geeks the world over into a foamy-mouthed, epileptic frenzy. 69 songs equals 3 CDs equals nearly three solid hours of new Magnetic Fields material-- think of it! That's more than some notable bands released in their entire existence. Add that to the fact that the Magnetic Fields actually followed through with their concept without turning it into the indie-pop equivalent of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. 
You see, I have this theory that music critics are suckers for novelty, and there isn't much in this world that's more novel than 69 Love Songs. It borders on being a prop in a Mark Leyner story-- it's hyperreal and excessive, yet perfectly plausible when you consider how weird reality is. Because of this, the album never feels like a ponderous, pretentious artistic statement (unlike most multi-CD releases). Stephin Merritt and company sound like they approached this ridiculously ambitious project with the most casual of airs, idly plucking melody after divine melody out of the air like low-hanging fruit from a tree. It's how pop music should sound, really: so natural and feather-light that you never notice the amount of effort that went into it. 
Therein lies the paradox of 69 Love Songs-- it's such a basic style of music that it's easy to dismiss it as "just pop music." Of course, that's what it is, so should it really deserve such high praise? Should it rank among the best albums of the 1990s? Or is it too bizarre to be considered culturally important? I mean, Abbey Road is a pretty weird album, too. Then again, Abbey Road isn't three hours long.

Regardless, Stephin Merritt has proven himself as an exceptional songwriter, making quantum leaps in quality as well as quantity on 69 Love Songs. This incarnation of the band doesn't feature much of the densely layered, burbling electro-pop that they're best known for; in its stead are sparser, more acoustic songs that sound as if they're being played on actual instruments by a group of actual musicians (as opposed to Merritt himself playing mad scientist with effects racks and overdubs). It may initially seem like this stylistic decision came due to budget restrictions-- if you're recording that many songs, you can't blow too much money on any one track. But it's probably more likely that Merritt finally realized the limits of tinny synths and drum machines. 
On the Fields' previous outing, Get Lost, you can hear Merritt beginning to lean toward simpler, more elegant arrangements; 69 Love Songs could easily be seen as a continuation of that trend. Merritt also ensures that the listener will never get bored with any one sound, trading off vocal duties with four other singers and deploying a mind-boggling array of instruments: ukulele, banjo, accordion, cello, mandolin, piano, flute, guitars of all shapes and sizes, a dumpster full of percussion toys, and the usual setup of synths and effects. Among other things. 
And the songs themselves? Well, I could write a thesis dissecting each and every song on this album, but that would take months. As a prism refracts light into a spectrum of colors, 69 Love Songs not only refracts love into a spectrum of emotions, but also refracts the love song itself into a spectrum of musical forms. There's a duet between a dysfunctional Sonny and Cher ("Yeah! Oh Yeah!"), a country-gospel tune confusing religious and secular love ("Kiss Me Like You Mean It"), and an amusingly light-hearted tale of a soldier's drunken tryst ("The Night You Can't Remember"). 
There's giddy lust ("Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits"), romantic longing ("Come Back from San Francisco"), sleazy leering ("Underwear"), and resignation and despair ("No One Will Ever Love You"). There are genre exercises such as faux-beatnik jazz ("Love is Like Jazz"), Paul Simon-ish world music ("World Love"), Gilbert and Sullivan-style mincing harpsichord ("For We are the King of the Boudoir"), Merritt's cartoony, day-glo interpretation of punk rock ("Punk Love"), Scottish folk ("Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget"), and a brief Philip Glass tribute ("Experimental Music Love"). There are also plenty of archetypal Magnetic Fields songs, with those trademark deadpan drama-queen vocals, casually depressive lyrics, and clever rhymes. But Merritt also shows he can pen some surprisingly sincere, moving ballads ("Busby Berkeley Dreams," "The Book of Love"), too. 
So, back to the original debate. You know that old saying about the whole being more than the sum of its parts? The sum of the parts of 69 Love Songs adds up exactly to its whole. No more, no less. Each song contains its own small epiphany, but they never quite add up to the one big sweeping epiphany that you'd hope for. That's because it's impossible to reconcile the concept of 69 Love Songs with its execution; it's simply too big. That might sound like a cop-out, but this is truly an album you can get lost in. The individual songs will inevitably distract you from a big-picture interpretation of the album. Of course, the Magnetic Fields don't concern themselves with such matters; they promised us 69 love songs, and that's what they delivered. That it's actually worth the exorbitant $35 price tag is a bonus.
Nick Mirov / Pitchfork