The Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs

by Kevin Orton Rating:8 Release Date:2016-10-28

I confess, I don’t know why this is getting the reissue treatment. It’s not as if its languished out of print all these years. But I think it’s safe to say 1999’s, 69 Love Songs is a landmark album. A worthy soundtrack to the end of a century. And without a doubt, Stephin Merritt’s masterwork. Proving himself to be both Cole Porter’s deadpan heir and Sondheim’s twisted, bastard son. 69 Love Songs is also quite a publicity stunt. One, that frankly lives up to the hype. Merritt has described it as “not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.”

A fairly apt description.

While it has many things to commend it, 69 Love Songs can be a daunting and unwieldy listen. It certainly has a lot of great songs but is it a great album as a whole? After giving it another spin after all these years, the answer is unequivocally yes. At its best it's touching and witty. At worst, wearisome and self-consciously clever (‘Punk Love’ being a prime example). And when on occasion, Claudia Gonson gets behind the mic, it can be a touch jarring. Though not unpleasant. She has a lovely voice but after a steady diet of Merritt’s droll croon, it just takes you a second or two to adjust to the change in vocals. 

‘The Luckiest Guy On the Lower Eastside’ has Merritt channeling or lampooning Morrissey. ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits’ is Merritt giving a nod and wink to Pet Sounds and would be annoying in anyone else’s hands but in Merritt’s deep drawl its hilarious. As with many tracks, it's Merritt having his satire and eating it too. Same can be said of the Folksy ‘The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be’. Its lone acoustic guitar, bringing the Folk standard, ‘All The Pretty Little Horses’ to mind.

 ‘The Book of Love’ is one of the albums finest, most restrained songs. “The book of love is long and boring… but I love it when you read to me” Merritt sings. It’s a song worthy of Sondheim and one wonders why Merritt hasn’t written more for the stage.  ‘My Sentimental Melody’ is another fabulous moment, bringing those moonlit Ricky Nelson ballads to mind despite the accompaniment of a French boulevard accordion. Its one of 69’s most successful moments. Rising above the pastiche. The same goes for, ‘Parades Go By, another standout. Complete with swelling strings, this time Merritt does his very best Scott Walker with winning results.

Last but not least, 'Busby Berkeley Dreams' is one of my favorite songs Merritt has ever penned. Stunning and heartbreaking. It's the one moment where you feel Merritt is singing from the soul, dropping all contrivances and artifice. For me, this one’s worth the price of admission.

 ‘Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long’ is literally about a horny dog set to bubbly synths. While fun the first time, its novelty wears thin on repeated listens. This is true of several numbers in this collection.  As for the acapella, ‘How Fucking Romantic’, it’s an example of how wearisome the album’s persistent cynicism can be.

While I previously mentioned, Claudia Gonson’s sporadic appearances can be a bit distracting, there’s no denying how much charm she lends to ‘Boa Constrictor’. In contrast, ‘Love Is Like a Pretty Girl’ is the kind of number you want to punch. Merritt laying it on a little too thick, despite some clever lyrics. It’s one of those numbers where you feel Merritt’s just showing off his musical virtuosity but his heart's not really in it. Fortunately, those times are few and far between.

On ‘Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing’, Merritt shows off his undeniable gift for melody. The same can be said for the gorgeous, ‘Things We Did and Didn’t Do’. Its sparse piano work reminiscent of something off the Robyn Hitchcock classic, I Often Dream of Trains.

I could go on and on and on about this album's merits (pun intended?) and shortcomings. But there are an overwhelming number of tracks to shift through. Suffice to say, for every brilliant moment like, ‘Love Is Like Jazz’, there’s a track that falls flat here and there. But its all subjective. It's clear this is an artist taking a big risk. And it pays off. If anything, 69 Love Songs is a testament to Stephin Merritt’s prodigious talents. He’s like a musical Peter Sellers, donning and doffing guises and occasionally giving you a quick peak into his heart. And while it seems redundant reissuing this, it’s Merritt’s shining moment.   

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