The Magnetic Fields

69 Love Songs (Merge 99) Rating: A
Wow, where do I even begin with this one? Well, how about a brief explanation first. The Magnetic Fields are Stephen Merritt and a rotating case of collaborators, and 69 Love Songs is a 3-cd box set that's also available as 3 separate albums (my recommendation is to splurge for the box set, which also contains a booklet with a lengthy interview during which Merritt describes each song). Not surprisingly, the album contains (yup, you guessed it) 69 (!!!) love songs, 23 per cd, as Merritt attempts to write the book on love, though he sardonically notes: "the book of love is long and boring, no one can lift the damn thing." As for the music, Merritt notes that "variety is the key when doing 3 hours of music", and he delivers an incredibly eclectic batch of songs, surprisingly few of which I would classify as filler. It helps that Merritt has 4 guest vocalists at his disposal (LD Beghtol, Claudia Gonson, Dudley Klute, Shirley Simms - each of whom sings 6 songs) helping him out, because his deadpan, Leonard Cohen-ish vocals surely would've gotten stale had he sang every song. Plus, the "guest" vocalists provide some great performances; my vote for best of the bunch goes to Dudley on "The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side." It really is hard to convey the sheer scope of this album, both musically (is that Johnny Cash on "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off"? Is that The Beach Boys on "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits"?) and lyrically (Merritt's typically clever lyrics are alternately funny, silly, sad, serious, playful, insightful, cynical, mean, and romantic), but let's just say that the album is easy to get lost within, and that most of these seemingly simple but deceptively sophisticated songs are easy on the ears. That's not to imply that they're slight; well, some of them are, but Merritt has expanded his sonic palette enough to make even the more throwaway tracks interesting. In addition to his usual assortment of (sometimes cheesy) synthesizer sounds, The Magnetic Fields sound like a real band playing live music on real instruments, the assortment of which (ukulele, banjo, accordion, cello, mandolin, piano, and flute, among others) is unprecedented on a Magnetic Fields album. Actually, this album as a whole is unprecedented, period, so much so that it's almost overwhelming. I can't even imagine listening to all 3 cds in one sitting, and it's probably better to consider 69 Love Songs as a box set rather than as an album proper (that's what Merritt advises, anyway). Better yet, compile the best songs onto a single playlist (I'm still trying to figure out which ones will make mine). After all, given the enormity of this absurdly ambitious undertaking, the album is just as enjoyable when sampled from (perhaps even more so) than when repeatedly going from track 1 to 23. So perhaps I should take points off for 69 Love Songs being simply too much to handle? Or perhaps I should add points for Merritt actually being able to pull this off (not many songwriters could have, believe me)? Or does it even matter? Probably not, as the majority of this album will appeal to all manner of tastes, though I'm sure that most people will find some of it frustrating and I'd be surprised if anybody likes all of it. But I already know that I really like - often love - a great deal of it, as did most of the critics who called this one of the best albums of 1999. It certainly is that, and I don't blame Merritt for thus far (late 2003) failing to follow it up, though he's certainly been busy with his other band outlets (the 6ths, Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes). Really, how can you possibly follow this up, as regardless of what he does 69 Love Songs figures to always stand as Stephen Merritt's definitive album statement. Update: The Magnetic Fields subsequently did release i (2004), Distortion (2008), and Realism (2010), but unsurprisingly none of those albums came close to achieving the overall excellence of 69 Love Songs.

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