So you’re in love. It’s a great feeling, huh? You want to jump up and down on tabletops and tell it to the world! It’s a warm feeling inside you: somehow, people on the street appear to smile at you as you walk past, the temperature is more pleasing, your senses are heightened… everything feels just that little bit better. Your life changes irrevocably for the better, and nothing can get in the way of your happiness. Right? Sorry, Stephin Merritt, do you hear me? Er, guess he missed the memo about love…
You see for Stephin Merritt, lead singer of The Magnetic Fields, love isn’t something to simply embrace and enjoy from the onset. He’s too realistic. The more levelheaded of us know that the feeling of being in love is an ever-changing beast, moving and adapting as a relationship heads forward, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. We should know this. Stephin Merritt seems to know it all too well, however. In 69 Love Songs he seems to have experienced enough love - and pain as a result of it – that his idea of love has been considerably altered. Love isn’t a singularly positive emotion for him: love encompasses an abundance of diverse negative reactions such as mistrust, jealousy, instability, change, lust, rage, anger and heartache. On 69 Love Songs, love isn’t presented as a Singin’ In the Rain style, dancing-like-an-idiot-on-the-streets-in-the-pouring-rain-because-you’re-so-happy-to-be-in-love type reaction: love reveals our deepest fears and insecurities. It is a complex, inscrutable emotion that Merritt doesn’t even pretend to understand anymore, and he presents it on this album a way we can’t even begin to associate with our normal understanding of what love is. On this album, love is twisted and not what it seems. As he himself said: “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.”
|The Magnetic Fields contemplating love's happiness.|
Naturally to go through this album song by song is a colossal task, and one that I’m not even going to bother to attempt. After a few vague descriptions it would be no more help than a lead life preserver, and I don’t believe the intention of The Magnetic Fields in making this album was so we could go through and systematically analyze every song. The grandiosity of this album is surely a deterrent, and the very name should tell you that 69 Love Songs is united by a common concept, and that is should be listened to as an album with that in mind. And when you do, the idea that love is all sunshine and rainbows comes crashing down almost instantly. The first track encourages the listener not to fall in love with the singer because sooner or later they will find out he is “absolutely cuckoo” and will leave “like everybody else does,” and on the second track I Don’t Believe In The Sun, Merritt’s vocals are so heart-wrenchingly morose that you feel an urgent necessity to sneak into his house and remove all the sharp objects. Self-depreciation is pathetic when it’s done insincerely, but when Merritt here sings “I don’t believe in the sun/How could it shine down on everyone?/And never shine me,” you really believe him. Thus are the effects of love gone wrong, which carry on into the next track, All My Little Words; perhaps the most perfectly crafted track on the first disc at least: a splendid mixture of elegiac lyrics of a romance gone bad, stirring harmonies and deep, throbbing cellos, throbbing like the aching heart of the singer. Fortunately it doesn’t get so suicidally depressing so early; there are a few shorter, whimsical tracks interspersed between the agonizing heartache: a song where the narrator is concerned that his dog’s leash is too long, (people can love their pets too!) a pretty little ditty noting the similarity between girls and minstrel shows, murder and melodies, (“A pretty girl is like a violent crime/if you do it wrong you could do time/But if you do it right it is sublime”) and little bursts of random like Punk Love, where the phrase “Punk love, punk rock love” is repeated in a punk style, getting faster and faster till the short track’s end. Naturally given an album this size there are some tracks one might count as “filler,” but the scarcity of such material on an album this size is truly noteworthy. Disc one is probably the strongest, containing a number of my personal favourites, including the paradoxically sardonic-yet-sincere I Don’t Want To Get Over You. Another aspect of love often overlooked: that of moving on; nobody really wants to do it, and The Magnetic Fields capture that essence perfectly in this song. Instead of being a man and getting on with his life, Merritt would rather “make a career of being blue…dress in black and read Camus/Smoke clove cigarettes and drink Vermouth.” Aside from the specifics I think there’s a little of all of us in that.
Band member Claudia Gonson famously remarked: “When we started Magnetic Fields we purposely had one lesbian, one gay guy, one straight woman, and one straight man. The audience could identify with whomever they wanted.” This diverse range of sexuality is explored on 69 Love Songs (nota bene the sexual connotations of the number 69) through various means: Merritt sometimes sings about boys, Gonson sometimes sings about girls, and sometimes we don’t quite know which. On When My Boy Walks Down The Street, for example, Merritt sings: “Amazing, he’s a whole new form of life/blue eyes blazing, and he’s going to be my wife.” Paradoxical, and yet I think the point is that it doesn’t really matter. Love is what it is, across all ranges of genre and sexuality, and it can have the same empowering – and devastating effects. Furthermore, one’s love of pets comes into play as seen above, as does religion, in a rather satirical style, on Kiss Me Like You Mean It, with a character referred to as “my Lord” and “my Saviour” being invited to “come here baby and kiss me like you mean it.” The fact is we get what we ask for on 69 Love Songs: they’re songs about love in its most general sense, whether that’s a friendly love, sexual love, a bad love, a good love, a twisted love or a broken love… it’s still all love, folks. And in parallel to this, to fit each wildly varying mood, the tracks are bizarrely different. Remember, this is essentially The White Album * 1.5: 3 discs instead of 2, with a whole barnyard more variety. Provided my A-Level Maths hasn’t failed me in just over 2 years, Stephin Merritt himself plays no less than 64 types of instrument on this album, and the styles range from futurist electronica (I Shatter) to a capella (How Fucking Romantic) to longue jazz (Love Is Like Jazz) to faux-Irish music (Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget) to Baroque (For We Are The King Of The Boudoir) to some of the best pop music imaginable. (Sweet Lovin’ Man, Acoustic Guitar, The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side, The Death of Ferdinand De Saussure and so on)
|Promo pic - photo Marcelo Krasilcic|
69 Love Songs showcases an oft-neglected aspect of love, presented with Merritt’s glaring cynicism and a career’s worth of musical experimentation. As a musical achievement it’s quite remarkable, and for all of you people sick of the dismal excuses for love songs that we’re oh too familiar with, this album is like a breath of fresh air; heck, this is a breath of pure oxygen. You can get these discs separately, but why would you want to? Unless you want to go step farther than Merritt and destroy a presentation of a love already destroyed. Now that really would be cynical.
Words – Adam.