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69 Love Songs was released September 7, 1999 by Merge. I was in school in Buffalo at the time and taking a break from music writing, so I was able to approach the collection entirely as a fan, which has affected how I listen to these three volumes. I’d been into the Magnetic Fields since Distant Plastic Trees/The Wayward Bus — when Susan Anway was on lead vocals — and remember being taken aback when Stephin Merritt started voicing his own songs on The House Of Tomorrow EP. A friend and I had a debate about whether or not his delivery was varied or emotional enough. Truth. We were in a record store in New Jersey. I mention this because it’s weird to think about that now: Who would question the warm baritone that’s vocalized so many classic (and whether he likes it or not) touching songs? I’m a fan of Holiday through Get Lost, but as far as performances go, everything feels a bit outmatched by the sheer volume (and quality) of voices and points of view Merritt takes on via his 69 Love Songs. You get the female vocals of Claudia Gonson and various guests, yes, but Merritt impressively chews the scenery without departing from that nonchalant, somehow endlessly appealing voice.

It’s an album that deserves LD Beghtol’s obsessive treatment. (As well as an overwrought MLA papers on the meta qualities of “The Way You Say Goodnight.”) Merritt’s said the album’s about love songs, not love, but whatever … it’s about love. It’s a scrapbook, a novel. It’s a self-contained jukebox that cuts across genres (punk, jazz, experimental, world, new wave, royal, country, Magnetic Fields), genders (straight, gay, ambiguous, and back). It’s comfortable referencing Ferdinand de Saussure, Busby Berkeley, Tennessee Williams, Billie Holiday, J&MC, Cole Porter, OMD, Paul Simon, etc.

You get similes, bad metaphors. Epitaphs. A Slogan: “Love, music, wine, and revolution.” Dancing. Wit. Happy and unhappy endings from the Lower East Side to Washington, D.C. and North Carolina to Kilronan and back. Longing, lust. Cheerleaders. It subverts and expands upon the tradition of love songs. It telescopes gay culture. It can bring up the tears in the tiniest fragments. It inverts and welcomes cliches. The speakers are romantic, lonesome, gloating, giddy, cheeky, questioning, protective, taunting, heartbroken, content, peevish, at home. Relationships can be illicit, married, meaningless, one-night, life-long. Or whatever. If you go through the tracklist, there are so many songs that felt like instant classics the first time through — “Papa Was A Rodeo,” “Lets Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits,” the Beghtol intoned “All My Little Words,” “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing,” “No One Will Ever Love You,” “Underwear,” “When My Boy Walks Down The Street,” “The One You Really Love,” “If You Don’t Cry,” etc., etc. — and remain just as affecting. How can you not want to dance to “Long-Forgotten Fairytale”? Or make it through “Asleep And Dreaming” without thinking about who you love (or loved) most? Or not wish Merritt would challenge Morrissey to a game of romantic put downs? It’s amazing how little filler there is across almost three hours. You’ve heard gems pop up on television shows, various commercials, and films, but more important than placement: Who’s completed a pop album this complex since?

In case you need a refresher, here’s an epic imeem playlist with many samples. It’s missing the first of our 69 songs, but you can find “Absolutely Cuckoo” here.

Comments (41)
  1. Michael_  |   Posted on Sep 8th, 2009 0

    Stephin Merritt needs to show all these indie rockers playing their back catalog albums in full who has the biggest balls of them all by doing a 69 Love Songs 10th Anniversary Tour. That would be one long, glorious Magnetic Fields show.

  2. What is this? This is no landmark album so why give it this kind of attention? It is a nice pop record, a bit too much filler but that is understantable considering the amount of songs on it.

    • It’s one thing to be not very fond of an album, personally — and that’s fine, we all have albums we think are overrated. But, it’s another to try to diminish an album’s importance/critical esteem based on that personal preference. I think the vast majority of pillars in the indie rock community would consider 69 Love Songs a landmark album and one of the best of the 90s. So, suck it, Blanky.

      • jjazznola  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

        A landmark album? Yeah right. A handful of decent songs at best. This guy was overated from the start. And I’m a fan believe it or not. And who exactly are the pillars in the indie rock community? Ha ha. Is that a joke?

  3. rotch  |   Posted on Sep 8th, 2009 0

    69 Love Songs is my favorite album ever, alongside In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I’m really glad you’re giving it this kind of attention.

  4. if this album gets a 10 year anniversary page, i can’t se what albums get it next year since next year is already brimming with landmark albums turning 10 years old

  5. Mike  |   Posted on Sep 8th, 2009 0

    @Blanky: What you said is just your opinion. I believe it is a landmark album.

  6. pearl  |   Posted on Sep 8th, 2009 0

    Yes, there is a lot of filler, but it is still an epic and has the greatest longevity of many of the albums I listen to. It’s great. The vinyl is coming out soon but it costs a cool $100 bucks. Sigh

  7. this album is the shit and anyone who hates AINT!

  8. Excellent album. So excellent.

  9. CP  |   Posted on Sep 8th, 2009 0

    Sadly I’ve always had trouble with Stephin Merritt’s deep voice, which is a shame because his lyrics are good.

  10. Happy birthday, old friend!

  11. Old Generation  |   Posted on Sep 8th, 2009 0

    Did you go to UB by any chance?

  12. I GO TO UB!!!!!

  13. excellent album of course. boy omega does a great cover of papa was a rodeo.

  14. rimesparse  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

    A day late. I know it was a holiday, but I still will never forget you didn’t get this on the actual day.

    Nonetheless, glad to see a post on this. Better than nothing.

  15. A solid tribute to a great record. Thanks.

  16. danielle  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

    pop masterpiece. essential listening.

  17. The first song I heard from this band was “Long-Forgotten Fairlytail” and I fell in love ever since.

  18. Seminal. First heard in a friend’s kitchen over gins. I think we were wearing oven mitts at the time on account of the fact that we were baking muffins. “If You Don’t Cry” went on every mix I made for friends for the three years that followed. Opinions opinions, but for me this release exists outside the realm of possibly being criticized. It’s just really fucking good.

  19. Christoph Knudsen  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

    Yeah! Oh Yeah! is the best thing they’ve ever done…amazing song.

  20. Jonathan   |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

    I’m a longtime Stephen Merritt fan. I consider Holiday and Get Lost minor classics. But 69 Love Songs was a catastrophe. And no, that isn’t such an unusual opinion. I believe the last reference to it on Pitchfork said it was mostly parodies that no one would want to hear twice. I would say it’s just a lot of lifeless genre exercises. As rinky-dink and passionless as the writing is, let’s consider another problem: most of the tracks aren’t even love songs unless you define “love song” as a song with the word “love” in it somewhere. Consider also that the whole thing sounds like a box set of demos recorded in a stairwell. Merritt’s best lyrics, best singing, best arrangements, and best melodies are all on other Magnetic Fields albums. 69 Love Songs was a triumph of concept and marketing.

  21. Kyle Harris  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

    It should’ve been condensed to one solid album. THE CHARM OF THE HIGHWAY STRIP. Now there’s an album I can get behind. It is a conceptual, concise, perfect album. Right down to the artwork. Bought the cd twice, and recent vinyl reissue. Heartbreaking.

    • too right too right  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

      charm of the highway strip was my first mag fields and its perfect indeed. 69 was my second, third and fouth. i hear you, but i dunnot think it should have been just one album,

      too me, different songs become my favorite, all 69 are quality.

  22. Holly Hop  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

    Honestly…that James Mercer version of “Strange Powers” has been one of my favorite things this year…if the Shins were smart as Radiohead…

  23. Jeff W.  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

    This is pretty much where Merrit blew his wad completely, most likely the last great record he’ll make. I’ve never heard people hate on it before but indie kids will hate on ANYTHING if it gets praised enough. I predict no more than 18 months before the inevitable grizzly bear backlash.

  24. eliana  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

    I’m still a bigger fan of everything prior to 69 Love Songs, but that recording defines that time for a lot of folks. I remember hearing an interview with Dave Eggers abt how you couldn’t walk into a party without hearing it.

    You hipped me to the first couple of albums via either the Targum or your show on RSU. I think I had those on a continuous loop for the entire year in 1994.
    It’s nice to have your discoveries and musing here now. (The various forms of metal, not so much, but otherwise…)

    Hi, Brandon!

    • hey eliana!

      i love those early records, too — especially the charm of the highway strip — and, really, am also a bigger fan of ‘em in many ways. that said, 69 Love Songs remains mind-blowing for the insane consistency across so many songs … totally monumental. it’s an imperfect masterpiece, or whatever. like what bolano riffs on in 2666. i admire the ambition of it. it’s also the record that brought the magnetic fields’ music to a bunch of people for the first time, which marks it as well … but yeah, when push comes to shove, some of the earlier albums hit me harder.

      ha ha re: the metal … but thanks….

  25. marshall  |   Posted on Sep 9th, 2009 0

    i just discovered this album recently and it is amazing how engaging it is throughout a whole 69 songs. There are some standout moments but its solid all the way through. Also i just love SM’s singing and songwriting

  26. Paul  |   Posted on Sep 10th, 2009 0

    69 Love Songs is great, but not my favorite Magnetic Fields (that would be The Charm of the Highway Strip). That aside, I challenge anyone to listen to Punk Love without skipping the song or blowing your brains out.

  27. Bootyfish  |   Posted on Sep 10th, 2009 0

    The dude is gay??? oh ok, the magnetic fields suddenly make sense to me now…

  28. Marc  |   Posted on Sep 11th, 2009 0

    Where’s the love for other albums that turned ten this year? Emergency & I? Anyone? Beuler?

  29. thairy's chocolate orange  |   Posted on Sep 11th, 2009 0

    I love this fucking mega-album.

  30. Woooo congrats Magnetic Fields.
    I shall to listen to Distortion on repeat today to celebrate the occasion.

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