#406: 69 Love Songs, The Magnetic Fields
This project is starting to feel long. I just finished a compilation album, and then I get this one, which, yes, is really 69 songs long. Three hours. The title is not just a funny joke. This is the album that’s going to break the concept I’ve been working with lately — I’ve made a real effort to include every single song in each review, for fear of leaving out somebody’s favorite. But you know what? Nah. We’re not doing that here.
Now that I’ve made my excuses: Who on Earth thought this album was a good idea? Magnetic Fields’ frontman and chief songwriter Stephin Merritt said “It started with the title.” Inspired by a Charles Ives book, Merritt said, “I decided I’d write one hundred love songs as a way of introducing myself to the world. Then I realized how long that would be. So I settled on sixty-nine.” Let’s all thank Stephin Merritt for reining himself in. (He later went on to release an album called 50 Song Memoir, so I guess this is his thing.)
Also, according to Merritt, this record “is not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.” It may sound like pretentious hair-splitting but the more I listened the more I got it. For one thing, Merritt takes on several genres of love song, many of which are satirical. There’s blink-182 mockery on “Punk Love,” snappy jazz mockery on “Love Is Like Jazz,” a spacey “Experimental Music Love,” and then the stately baroque “For We Are the King of the Boudoir.” Though not all of his genre experiments are tongue-in-cheek; see war ballad “Abigail, Belle of Kilronan.”
Band member and manager Claudia Gonson said that the Magnetic Fields’ started out “purposely” with “one lesbian, one gay guy, one straight woman, and one straight man.” (She was the lesbian.) Without one sexuality in mind, the album is fluid and universal: there’s a love song for everyone. (There’s dozens of examples, but contrast Gonson’s ode to a hippie lady on “Acoustic Guitar” to her ode to a “Sweet-Lovin’ Man.”)
Everybody gets a chance to sing here. Merritt dominates, of course, and while his extremely deep bass voice is not what I expected, it’s enchanting, especially when he runs it through a robotic filter on “I Shatter.” There are four other singers, but my favorite are the women. Gonson’s voice has its own personality — see her cheerleader chant on “Washington D.C.” Shirley Simms’ voice is delightfully high, especially when she’s being thirsty on “Kiss Me Like You Mean It.” Merritt duets with them both: “Papa Was a Rodeo” has him ruefully telling Simms that he won’t stick around for the morning after, and “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” casts him as a husband who literally murders his wife, Gonson.
Still, I feel like I’m not selling you on how smart this album actually is. I wouldn’t go as far as RS goes, calling a song called “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” a “God-level moment.” Anyone can be pretentious. It takes a special kind of songwriter to be funny. He sings about being an ugly guy who finds love in his car on “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” then about a stubborn childless woman on “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget,” who would rather turn into a cockroach than love her suitor. Then he’s a sassy little shit on “How Fucking Romantic.” There’s a lot to love about his figurative language (see “A Pretty Girl Is Like” and “Love is Like a Bottle of Gin”) but honestly, I was most impressed when he made me laugh.
“The Book of Love” is far and away the most well-known song on this record — it was covered by Peter Gabriel, and his version was later featured on South Park. I believe it’s also the album’s thesis statement. The Book of Love is long and boring, he says. But it’s also full of music/ In fact it’s where music comes from/ Some of it is just transcendental/ Some of it is just really dumb.
He’s touching on the heartbeat of his project: Love is why we make music at all. If you went through every song ever written and counted out how many were love songs, my guess is that it would be the overwhelming majority. And there are a million different ways to write them, just like there are a million different ways to fall in love.