69 Love Songs Turns 20
Stephin Merritt did not mean any of what he wrote on 69 Love Songs. He has been very clear about this over the years. 69 Love Songs — the massive triple-disc, three-hour opus that celebrated its 20th anniversary this past Saturday — is a writing exercise, a parlor trick, a flex. It is not a work of personal expression. “Expression is not the point,” Merritt once told The Independent. “If I need to express something, I express it in ordinary prose. Songwriting is not about expressing something.”
In that same interview, Merritt puts it another way: “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.” If there’s any authenticity to be found on 69 Love Songs, it’s what Merritt calls “fraudulent authenticity” — which is to say that it’s not authenticity at all. But if 69 Love Songs ever mattered to you — and there’s a very good chance that it did — then that fraudulent authenticity does the trick anyway.
Take, for example, “The Book Of Love,” still the best-remembered of those 69 love songs. Over a barely-there guitar strum, Merritt, his baritone croak of a voice in soft-swoon mode, gets into the concept of love itself, and into that of music itself: “The book of love has music in it. In fact, that’s where music comes from. Some of it is just transcendental. Some of it is just really dumb.” Talking to the AV Club years later, Merritt said that he used “The Book Of Love” to explore “the way the different clichés interact.”
But two of my best friends chose “The Book Of Love” as the first dance at their wedding. My friends didn’t pick that song because they wanted to explore the way different clichés interact. They picked it because it’s a beautiful song. They picked it because it moved them. (One of those friends — his name is Marc Hogan, and he works for Pitchfork — tried to ask Merritt about the sentiment that so many people attach to “The Book Of Love” as part of an onstage interview a couple of years ago. Merritt, characteristically, was a dick about it.)
That, in a nutshell, is 69 Love Songs. Merritt’s masterwork is a glaringly insincere work about sincerity, or about the idea of sincerity. Over those 69 songs, Stephin Merritt explores the entire vocabulary of popular music, trying out different genres like they’re outfits and capturing sentiment through perfectly phrased bon mots. It’s an album full of deep references, silly jokes, and absurdist genre exercises. Rather than exploring actual human feelings, Merritt explores the way that different humans have written about human beings over the previous century of popular song.
And yet 69 Love Songs, for many of us, did the very real work of sentimental music. Intentionally or not, it captured thoughts and dreams and longings. Those songs became parts of people’s lives. And so 69 Love Songs is a paradoxical work: an album that seems to matter a whole lot more to its admirers than it does to its creator.
When Merritt wrote the songs that became 69 Love Songs, he was in a New York cabaret bar, hatching the idea of a grand drag revue. Merritt had been working as a music critic at Time Out: New York, becoming notorious for his erudite savagery, and he’d released a string of thoughtful, conceptual lo-fi synthpop records under a series of different band names. The Magnetic Fields were an indie rock band by association only. They recorded for Merge, and they played indie rock venues when they played at all. But Merritt wasn’t part of a scene. And in any case, indie rock in the late ’90s had no use for ideas like grand drag revues. (Its loss.) Merritt had the idea that he should be writing for Broadway — something that he would eventually do. He wanted to write something that would show how well he could write. He did that.
69 Love Songs was originally supposed to be 100 songs, but Merritt eventually figured out that 100 songs was too many. And anyway, there was an appealing sort of symmetry to 69 Love Songs: three CDs, 23 songs apiece, with no real thought given to turning the whole thing into a sweeping, holistic experience. There’s no real strategy to the way 69 Love Songs is put together. It’s merely one great song after another. None of the three CDs is really different from any of the others. 69 Love Songs might be the only great album in history that’s just as good when heard on shuffle as it is when played in its intended order.
Merritt recorded 69 Love Songs in places around New York — sometimes in his apartment — with a rotating cast of players. (One of them was Daniel Handler, the writer who was just then taking on the Lemony Snicket alter-ego. Meritt’s Gothic Archies would later record A Tragic Treasury, a sort of soundtrack album for Handler’s Series Of Unfortunate Events books.) Merritt farmed out many of the vocals to the other members of his band, which is the sort of thing you need to do to keep a three-hour album interesting. And yet his authorial voice remains strong throughout.
Over and over on 69 Love Songs, Merritt flexes his own cleverness. Some of his lyrics are tiny marvels of economy. On “I Don’t Believe In The Sun,” for instance, Merritt offers up this: “The moon to whom the poets croon has given up and died / Astronomy will have to be revised.” This is not a sentiment that would come into your head if you were suffering from the heartbreak that Merritt describes on the song. But It’s a great line anyway. 69 Love Songs is full of great lines. “Love was anywhere with diesel gas; love was a trucker’s hand / Never sat around long enough for a one-night stand.” “Not for all the tea in China / Not if I could sing like a bird / Not for all North Carolina / Not for all my little words.” “Be we in Paris or in Lansing / Nothing matters when we’re dancing.”
In a way, Merritt’s entire process — churning out as many songs as possible, capturing feelings through sheer dispassionate intellectual strength — is the natural order for pop music. All through 69 Love Songs, Merritt offers up namechecks to some of pop’s great songwriting teams: Rogers and Hart, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Gwar. And Merritt is a clear student of pop history’s songwriting factories: Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, Motown. Many of the 69 love songs are Merritt’s attempts to write like those people. Many of those attempts are shockingly, jarringly successful.
69 Love Songs isn’t pop music. It’s the pop star’s job to sell the song, to convince you that she feels what she’s singing. Merritt has never bothered with that in his entire life. (Many of the best songs on 69 Love Songs are the ones that Merritt doesn’t sing, since collaborators like Claudia Gonson and LD Beghtol put at least a little work into conveying the feelings that the songs described.) And the songwriting factories of the past, however cynically, at least attempted to give people something that they could feel. Merritt, by contrast, has always written songs that display cleverness, songs that congratulate his listeners for their own cleverness. But a lot of the songs on 69 Love Songs resonated in ways that went well beyond this.
Merge released 69 Love Songs a few days before I turned 20. I was deep into my first real relationship, feeling things that I’d been desperately wanting to feel for my whole life. So 69 Love Songs killed me over and over. I put those songs on mixtapes. Another person put those songs on mixtapes for me. I muttered those lyrics to myself like they were tiny little prayers. I sang those lyrics to my girlfriend. She sang them to me. 69 Love Songs was a part of my life. It didn’t matter to me whether those songs were really sincere or sentimental or vulnerable. To me, they became those things.
Part of it, I think, was how I heard those songs. Merge put out 69 Love Songs in a big triple-CD set with a whole book of liner notes, but I couldn’t afford that, and nobody I knew could. The label also put the album out as three individual CDs. But the Magnetic Fields, even in the indie underground, had never been a big name, so those CDs weren’t always easy to find. For months, I only had the third volume. Then maybe someone made me a tape of Vol. 2. Eventually, I acquired the whole thing. But I didn’t have to process 69 Love Songs as a vast brick of content. It came into my world piecemeal, one disc at a time. I was able to slowly luxuriate into it. This turned out to be the best way to experience it.
For maybe a year — for the amount of time that the relationship had left — 69 Love Songs, one disc at a time, was on constant rotation. I couldn’t believe somebody had done it — had cranked out all these perfect little songs and then put them out into the world like it was nothing. I’d spend a week stuck on one individual song — on “Promises Of Eternity,” on “The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure,” on “Washington, DC” — and then another one would sneak up on me and knock me out all over again. And when I hear 69 Love Songs, it’s a disorienting Proustian memory-bath situation. As great as many of those songs are, I hear them more as pieces of my own past than as pieces of music.
Listening to 69 Love Songs today is a different experience. Heard as a two-hour-and-52-minute playlist, it can be a big overbearing and exhausting. The fluidity of the songs’ genders, something that seemed lightly transgressive to me in 1999, now feels like the natural order of things. (This is good.) Merritt’s wordplay is sometimes beautiful and sometimes exhausting. Some of his genre exercises — “Punk Rock Love,” “Love Is Like Jazz,” “Xylophone Track” — are condescending and unlistenable. Others — “Papa Was A Rodeo,” “I Think I Need A New Heart,” “I’m Sorry I Love You” — are dead-on perfect. Some of the album is transcendental. Some of it is just really dumb. Overall, it’s a towering triumph of dispassionate precision — a work of sentimentality-related cynicism so successful that a great many of us now attach actual sentimentality to it.
Merritt might have always felt jaded and detached about 69 Love Songs. I might feel jaded and detached from it, too, if I can find any distance. But I can’t. 69 Love Songs stuck with me. It’s a part of my life now, and it always will be. Maybe Merritt didn’t mean any of it. But when I sang along, I meant it. I still do.