69 Love Songs
The Magnetic Field’s 69 Love Songs is a three- volume concept album, released by Merge Records on September 7, 1999. The three volumes compile the tracks in a loosely thematic way: Volume 1 being the “Pop Album,” Volume 2 the “Ballad Album,” and Volume 3 the “Comedy Album.” However, the album is not made up of love songs in the traditional way of expressing affection or admiration for another individual. Rather they are songs about love songs, many of them sarcastic or with a cynical view point. Of this, Stephin Merritt, the principle songwriter and instrumentalist behind the Magnetic Fields says, “the whole idea of 69 Love Songs is the travesty of the idea of the love song- the love song is generally not supposed to be happening in bulk.” He further describes the album as a stunt, an experiment in “Warholian repetition” like “Evel Knievel jumping over 69 cars.”
To keep the album interesting for the duration of its almost 3 hour running time, Merritt explores writing songs in a variety of different genres, as well as in the styles of some of his favorite artists and composers. Of this approach, Merritt says, “I like ripping the details out of popular songs and reducing them to just the skeleton, and seeing how much they still mean- and they still mean a great deal, I think.” Despite his subversive tendencies towards popular music, Merritt considers himself to be a lifelong pop music junkie, and it is “what he cares about most in the world”, partially in its most sugary, bubblegum form. Thus, in addition to being an album of “love songs” abut love songs, 69 Love Songs also stands as a love letter to the popular music styles of the 20th century, with the only significant exclusions being hip-hop, modern R&B, and heavy metal, styles that Merritt felt he was not suited for playing.
The Magnetic Fields were formed in Boston MA, in 1989, when Stephin Merritt was 23, the band name a reference to a Andre Brenton novel. However, Stephin had been recording music for years earlier, as he obtained his first four-track tape deck when he was 14, and made bedroom recordings with a guitar and synthesizer. In high school he first met future Magnetic Fields member Claudia Gonson, who then performed with him in the band the Zinnias. Merritt also attended Harvard University with Gonson, where they met cellist Sam Davol and guitarist, John Woo. It was here where the band was first assembled, and all four remain members to date. Susan Anway, friend of Claudia and member of the post-punk band V was also an original member, and sang on the first two Magnetic Fields albums, 1991's Distant Plastic Trees, and 1992's The Wayward Bus. These albums were heavily influenced by the Young Marble Giants and the production of Phil Spector. Anway left the band in 1992 to live in Arizona, and Merritt took over vocal duties, something he was always hesitant about, as he was not confident with his voice. He first sang on the House of Tomorrow EP, released in 1992.
Prior to 69 Love Songs, the Magnetic Fields released 5 records, the aforementioned Distant Plastic Trees, and the Wayward Bus, as well as Holiday and the Charm of the Highway Strip in 1994, and Get Lost in 1995. The albums are all surprisingly different from one another, with Holiday being entirely synth-based and lo-fi in production, while the Charm of the Highway Strip is an attempt at an all-electronic interpretation of country music and traveling songs, featuring heavy multi-instrumental layering, with everything performed by Stephin apart from cello by Sam Davol. Get Lost was a progression closer to that of 69 Love Songs, with the integrating of different styles on a song-to-song basis. His primary influence was the Pavement compilation Westing (By Musket and Sextant,) and attempted to replicate how almost every song sounded like it was recorded in a different way. Get Lost marks the first Magnetic Fields album featuring acoustic instruments with minimum accompaniment (specifically songs "With Whom to Dance?" and “When You're Old And Lonely”) as well as higher production values that are more characteristic of later Magnetic Fields releases.
The concept of 69 Love Songs, was originally envisioned as Merritt’s attempt to get into theater (something he later would achieve.) He thought of writing a review without a storyline, noting Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1968) and An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer (1959) as influences. Also, taking the idea from the 1922 Charles Ives songbook, “114 Songs” Stephin toyed with the idea of writing songs in bulk for the revue, and envisioned a Andy Warhol-like poster saying “100 Stephin Merritt Love Songs.” After realizing how long that would make the revue, he decided to cut the songs down to 69, “the next sexy number down from 100.” When Merge records approached him about releasing a new album, as he had gone three years without doing so, he mentioned the idea of doing a triple album, which much of the label staff was apprehensive about, yet Merge’s distributor, Touch & Go, was excited by. Thus Stephin began working on the project.
The writing process for 69 Love Songs was very quick. Of this, Stephin says: “one of the funny things about 69 Love Songs is that it’s such a denial of inspiration and confession and autobiography and sincerity- I simply set to work.” He began writing the album in May of 1998 and was finished by July. Writing the album was all that Stephin did for the two month period, and he frequently would complete two or thee songs within a single day. Even more so, about 60 songs were left over after the final 69 were chosen. Stephin’s song writing process for the album involved going to a café and making two pots of tea to last for the day. He found the café environment helpful for the album, as the music playing on the jukebox and the overheard conversations provided inspiration for songs. Once the tea was finished, he’d head over to a gay bar that played “bad disco music” at high volume. Oddly, this helped him write, as he finds the music so incredibly boring that he has to go off into “the songwriting place” so he “doesn’t sit there and scream.”
The recording of 69 Love Songs was a much more collaborative process than the previous albums. They aimed to capture the sound of a band playing in the room with you, and thus used significantly more string instruments than in the past. Still, Stephin played almost 100 instruments on the album himself, and as a collector of bizarre and foreign musical instruments with three rooms in his home devoted only to them, he had a variety to choose from. Three additional vocalists also performed on the album, LD Beghtol, Dudley Klute, and Shirley Simms, as well as two musicians, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) who played accordion, and Chris Ewen who contributed to the backing tracks on some of the more electro-pop oriented songs.
When the album was finally released the next year, it was a surprise indie hit, with all 2,500 copies of the original pressing selling out within a day. This was exceptional, as all of the previous Magnetic Fields releases sold on average of 10,000 copies each at that time. The reviews were almost universally positive, including perfect 5 star/A+ reviews from Robert Christgau, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, The A.V. Club, and the Guardian, as well as 4.5/5 and 9/10 ratings by AllMusic and Pitchfork. The album currently features a critical average of 88 and user average of 98 on the rating aggregator site Metacritic, and made Top 10 Albums of the Year lists by Magnet, the Village Voice, Spin, New York Times, and Rolling Stone. Furthermore, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, and Neil Gaiman make up some of the album’s celebrity fans. To date, the set has sold over 130,000 copies, especially impressive considering its $34.98 retail price.
Merritt’s musical influences for the album are vast and electric, and they are reflected in how no two of the album’s 69 songs sound particularly alike. While he states that his music taste is primarily catered towards bubblegum pop and experimental composers, his favorite band is Abba. They were the first band that he listened to as a child, and they fueled his first attempts at songwriting. He said that after listening to Abba, he began to write songs about things that he knew nothing about, such as “marital difficulties at the breakfast table,” with many of his songs still featuring this topical approach. In addition, Abba’s musical approach of never writing music down as “if they can’t remember it, no one else well” is something he has taken to heart, writing and storing melodies in his head. On 69 Love Songs, the Abba influence shines through the clearest on the songs “Long Forgotten Fairytale” and “It’s a Crime.”
Additionally, Merrit is heavily influenced by Tin Pan Alley composer Irving Berlin, who he regards as his favorite songwriter. The song “A Pretty Girl is Like...” was written as a response to Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” the song essentially saying that this is an insult, as there are many melodies that you would not want to have in your head. The song is also structured in Tin Pan Alley song form, AABA. Also, on the first volume of the record, “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” features Tin Pan Alley form for its verses. Another song on the first volume “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” is also influenced by Berlin, but rather by his work in musical theater. The song’s title was written by Berlin, yet the song itself was never composed. The lyrics also reference the life of Berlin, as the song’s story involves the ugliest guy on the Lower East Side, yet he has a car and thus meets a beautiful girl. Merritt stated that while Berlin was not an attractive man, he married beautiful women, and thus he clearly had other assets.
The artist interpreting and responding however does not end at Abba and Irving Berlin. “A Chicken with its Head Cut Off” is a Johnny Cash style, pop-country song which attempts to scrape the bottom of the barrel of clichés and rhyme schemes. “Come Back from San Francisco” is a response to Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), " placing the song from the perspective of the person whose lover traveled to San Francisco, and longs for them to come back, stating “It can't be all that pretty.” “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” interprets the style of synth pop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. “The One You Really Love” is written in the style of country group The Carter Family, though a darker and more bitter interpretation. “I’m Sorry I Love You” is also influenced by the Carter family, yet attempts to combine their style with a Bo Diddly-esque beat. “When My Boy Walks Down the Street” recalls the Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1985 album Psychocandy, with Beach Boys style melodies washed in screeching distortion (The Magnetic Fields 2008 album Distortion would further expand on this approach.) “No One Will Ever Love You” is according to Merritt, an attempt to roll multiple elements of the Fleetwood Mac album Tusk into one song. “Yeah, Oh Yeah!” is a tragic take on Sonny & Cher duet “I’ve Got You Babe.” Lastly, “My Only Friend” is in the style of pianist duo Ferrante & Teicher, “For We Are the King of the Boudoir” is in the style of Victorian era composers Gilbert and Sullivan, and the album’s final track “Zebra” as a parody of composer Cole Porter, a person whom Merritt is frequently compared to.
Merritt also wrote songs in specific genres for the album, the four most obvious being “Punk Love,” “Love is Like Jazz,” “Experimental Music Love,” and “World Love,” a take on Graceland style world music. Also of note is the folk-rock of “All My Little Words,” the Irish War Ballad “Abigail, Belle of Kilronan,” the interpretation of Krautrock in “I Shatter,” the folk of “Acoustic Guitar,” the traditional Scottish “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget,” a waltz “The Night You Can’t Remember” and the blues based “Xylophone Track.” For a book on the album in the 33 1/3 series, Merritt along with guest vocalist and author LD Beghtol attempt to classify each song into a specific genre, some much more specific than others.
With the mirroring and genre hopping that Merritt employs on 69 Love Songs, some have questioned his authenticity, particularly when he takes on more sensitive genres such as country where authenticity is valued. Merritt however is quick to admit to his use of appropriation and fraudulent authenticity, particularly as he enjoys keeping his music playful, and finds “artifice more fun than pure confession,” an element he has in common with another one of his biggest influences, Gary Numan. Merritt also shares a similar approach to Eurythmics singer, Annie Lennox, particarly on their 1987 album Savage. He interprets each song on this album as a subversion of an existing cliché. The subverting and unpacking of clichés is a common thread among much of Merritt’s songs, and it can be best exemplified with “The Book of Love,” the highest voted song when a poll regarding the album was held in 2006, and the second highest voted when it was originally held in September of 1999.
Love being a book is a cliché that has been used to death, however in this song Stephin approaches it as if there actually was an encyclopedia about love. According to him, it would be “long and boring” and contains charts, facts, figures, flowers, heart-shaped boxes, as well as instructions for dancing. This song contains another characteristic among Merritt’s songwriting- the blending together of completely opposite emotions in a way that seems effortless. The protagonist in the song is someone who is very bitter and jaded about love, someone who writes off much of the actual book as “really dumb” and irrelevant, as he’s part of the generation “too young to know” much of its contents. Still, some of it is “transcendental.” Thus I feel the song is also about the cynic surrendering to love, giving into the book to the extent where he can be read or sung “anything” by the person to whom he gave his heart.
The winner of the 69 Love Songs poll in 1999, and what I personally consider to be the best song on the album, “Papa Was a Rodeo,” acts as a subversion of cliché. Even from its opening seconds, you can tell it is the most country sounding song on the album, yet the opening line, “I like your twisted point of view, Mike” is far unlike any opening line I have heard in a country song, or even song before. In the first verse, the male character singing is speaking to “Mike,” saying that despite his affection, he must leave early and will not be back until the following year. The chorus continues this theme, explaining why he is the type who will “never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand.” The next verse details a future meeting between the singer and Mike in a dive bar, reconnecting after an absence in time and wanting to take Mike away with him. The third verse, is another meeting, though 55 years later, after they’ve had the “romance of the century.” Now when you factor in these verses as well as Stephin Merritt’s sexual orientation, you can imply that this is a song about the attraction between two male cowboys. However there is a big reveal at the end of the third verse when “I still feel like crying
When I think of what you said to me” is uttered. Guest vocalist Shirley Simms enters, and sings the exact same chorus that was repeated twice before. Mike was a woman! The point is drilled home with the song’s final lines: “What a coincidence, Your papa was a rodeo, too.” However, whether the tears were regarding Mike leaving the man due to her being just like him or whether the tears were of joy regarding that she was just like him, and the two could now be wanderers together is ambiguous and up for the listener to decide.
I consider 69 Love Songs to be my favorite album of all-time. I have listened to all three discs in a row on occasion, and it has never failed to hold my attention. I have used countless songs from the album on mix CDs and made a three different “best of” mixes, constructing each new one without reminding myself of the previous versions. I have even ranked the songs in order from favorite to least favorite. Around the time of 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt said in an interview: “What I’d like to do next is come up with something that really doesn’t sound like anything else, and yet somehow is withing the pop tradition. I won’t be upset if I can’t figure out how to do it. But it’s a noble goal.” Honestly, I think he’s already done with 69 Love Songs. Despite all the homages, interpretations, responses and genre exercises, the album always sounds like the Magnetic Fields, and its their ambitious scope yet how they never losing traces familiarity that I think makes the band so appealing to both myself and their rabid cult of fans (myself included.)
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