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.