Album of the Week, September 21: 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields
September 21, 2014 Leave a comment
Stephin Merritt has never lacked musical ambition. Born and raised near Boston, he had a high school band called the Zinnias with friend and drummer Claudian Gonson. For a studio project, he created Buffalo Rome (also with Gonson), which evolved into the Magnetic Fields. Dissatisfied with his own voice, Merritt eventually recruited Susan Anway to sing his songs. With Merritt playing almost everything, this duo recorded two solid albums in the early 90s, featuring her haunting vocals over diverse musical soundscapes mostly played on intentionally cheap synths. A sort of wall-of-lo-fi electro-pop, the discs bristled with Merritt’s stunning wordplay and clear sense of musical styles and history. Gonson and cellist Sam Davol appear on both discs. Anway moved away and Merritt recorded his own vocals on the thematic Charm of the Highway Strip. While his quirky baritone was quite different from Anway’s vocals, it served the material well. After two more albums, the Magnetic Fields were really a band: Merritt, Gonson, Davol and guitarist John Woo. For his first project with the formalized group, Merritt decided to do something big.
|Title||69 Love Songs|
|Act||The Magnetic Fields|
|Release||September 7, 1999||U.S. Chart||n/c||U.K. Chart||n/c|
|Tracks||Disc One||Disc Two||Disc Three|
Initially planned as a set of 100 songs that could be performed as a revue with varying vocalists, Merritt scaled the project back just a bit. Settling on 69 songs, he brought in some additional help and recorded his masterpiece. Perhaps the best introduction to this epic masterpiece is a quote from the author:
69 Love Songs 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.
That’s a perfect analysis. Merritt has always reveled in dissecting, imploding, and subverting familiar musical forms and tropes. Romping through a whole batch of them, loosely joined by the love song theme, shows off the breadth of his talent and the fun that can be had with a great musical idea. The songs range from Abigail, Belle of Kilronan to Zebra (strangely missing only a “J” song to have a complete alphabet) and from 29 seconds to just over five minutes in length. Merritt provides 45 lead vocals plus two duets, one with Gonson and another with the charming Shirley Simms (who would later become an offical band member). Longtime friend and collaborator ld beghtol and irony champion Dudley Klute (who also perform with Merritt as the Three Terrors) each pitch in leads for six tracks, as do Gonson and Simms. This diversity of vocal talent lets Merritt really match the song to the singer, often in subversive and unexpected ways.
A track-by-track analysis (like I usually provide for Albums of the Week) would be too exhausting for both writer and reader. Suffice it to say that while there is a bit of inevitable filler (note the tracks that mention specific musical forms), the whole project is amazingly consistent and cohesive. Any set that includes a spot-on trad-folk parody (Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget), a darkly haunting kiss-off (No One Will Ever Love You), a sprightly murder ballad about a famous linguist (The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure), and an ABBA-worthy pop epic (Sweet-Lovin’ Man) is worth the time and effort. That analysis barely scratches the surface. (I’ve written up Songs of the Day for most of my favorites, available through the links in the track list above.)
It’s easy to label an album like this sprawling, epic, massive, or daunting. All of those terms apply to some extent. More importantly, however, it’s visionary, smart, clever, fun, compelling, and satisfying. Expertly sequenced, lovingly played, and dizzyingly diverse, 69 Love Songs is like nothing else. It’s also magnificent. The three discs are available separately, but not owning the whole set is simply a crime. (There’s a box set version which features an extended conversation about the songs between Merritt and longtime friend Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snickett. It’s worth the extra couple of bucks.) Merritt manages to be ringmaster, Svengali, and bandleader while still being very much a part of a larger whole. Anyone who appreciates smart writing, music with a sense of history AND fun, and a group of players at their best should invest in this wonderful set.
FURTHER LISTENING: It’s hard to keep track of Stephin Merritt’s musical projects. Besides his ten discs as leader of the Magnetic Fields, he has four other musical identities with recordings available. As the 6ths, he’s recorded two albums with a wide array of vocalists from all over the indie music world, each singing one track. That “group’s” Wasp’s Nests is a masterpiece of a very different flavor but almost as compelling as 69 Love Songs. With Gonson and keyboardist Christopher Ewen, he is part of the much more democratic electro-pop group Future Bible Heroes. Their material is a lot of fun and features some smart playing. The best of their albums is Eternal Youth. The aptly named Gothic Archies are another side project, with smaller output; it’s good stuff, but not as compelling. Merritt also records under his own name, especially for soundtrack work.
Of the Magnetic Fields albums, three others stand out. Distant Plastic Trees, the debut with Anway, is less fully-formed and features some weaker experiments, but it also includes some of Merritt’s most beautiful melodies. The cheap-synth folk feel is uniquely compelling. The Charm of the Highway Strip is a strong concept disc with an almost alt-country feel. i, the first in his no-synths trilogy, is the strongest of the post-69 material. All of the albums are worthwhile (with the overlong Get Lost and the overwrought concept of Distortion coming closest to real stumbles) and fans of Merritt’s distinctive musical vision can find real gems on every one.