Album Review: The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs (Merge)


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MP3: The Magnetic Fields – Underwear

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MP3: The Magnetic Fields – Queen of the Savages

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MP3: The Magnetic Fields – Long-Forgotten Fairytale

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MP3: The Magnetic Fields – The Book of Love

There’s something poetic about the number 10. Rationally speaking, there’s nothing different about it, but it’s hard to deny 10 its place in our psychology. With that in mind, it seems like high time to look back on what is arguably the Magnetic Fields’ best album to date, 69 Love Songs.

10 years ago, they released this pop giant. For those who are unfamiliar, here’s the concept: 69 love songs, of all sorts.  Puppy love, sex, breakups, getting back together, love for an object, and what seems to be their favorite theme, dancing. The list doesn’t end there, to tell you the truth; it’s hard to find any place to end the list, which is both 69 Love Songs’ best and worst quality.

I don’t know if you’ve ever come up with an idea like this, but usually the concept gets shot down in the early planning stages purely on the grounds of its overwhelming difficulty. The funny thing is, not only did the mind behind the Magnetic Fields (Stephin Merritt) carry out this monumental task, he originally wanted to include 100 love songs (there’s also apparently something poetic about the number 100). He was sitting in a gay bar, pondering whether he should become a theatre musician, when it came to him. Soon after its conception, Merritt realized what a gigantic undertaking 100 would be and brought the meter down to 69. Think about it; that’s still three discs with 23 songs each. You could stretch that further into 6 or 7 full lengths. That’s a full musical career. Most musicians won’t release 69 songs total, much less 69 songs in one release.

There were so many ways this could go wrong. All the songs could have sounded the same, the songwriting mediocre. He could have put the talent of one regular album into 69 Love Songs; it would have all been very bland. I think Stephin Merritt knew that, so he hired LD Beghtol and Claudia Gonson to help make the album more diverse.

In a project like this, diversity is your best friend. Nobody wants to hear 69 synthpop love tunes in a row (at least I hope not). Mr. Beghtol’s voice works the standard pop angle, its unwavering consistency complements Stephin Merritt’s far less robust delivery. Similarly, while you might call Claudia Gonson’s vocals plain when compared to her glamourous indie contemporaries, a straightforward and effective style is more original than most. The utilization of these musicians shows Stephin Merritt’s songwriting instinct. This is a man who wrote 69 very different pieces of music on the same subject, and released them to much critical acclaim.

And it was deserved. The first sound on the record is Merritt’s somehow-cute vocal work pleading, “don’t fall in love with me yet.” It’s a melody that makes the head bounce, a sort of musical quilt comprised of so many patches of sound that your mind automatically concentrates on the ever-so-addicting vocal line. And it’s over so very quickly, like a handful of sand that you’re not quite acquainted with until you’ve moved it around enough for it to sift completely back onto the ground. But it’s okay, because there are plenty more love songs to go.

One thing I noticed about this album after just a few listens though is that it’s a goldmine of mixtape-ready songs. There’s nothing more perfect than putting on a mix for your new indie-crush and including “Absolutely Cuckoo,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits,” or “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing.” That’s only talking about disc one. As you trudge on through these melodies, you may not find discs two or three as satisfying as the first, but it’s rewarding for the moments of brilliance found among the infinitely long tracklist.

And brilliance there is! Instead of a full rundown of the masses contained on the last two-thirds of 69 Love Songs, I think a short list of highlights is more appropriate and less cumbersome. The industrial complex of “Long-Forgotten Fairytale” recalls us pleasurably to the day of Dépêche Mode, a time that some of us youngin’s never experienced firsthand. “I Shatter” sports a devastatingly low vocal orientation; it shows us a Magnetic Fields exploring a genre that I still have trouble finding any adjective to describe. “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” and “Meaningless” put the fun back in heartbreak, while the phenomenally written “Busby Berkeley Dreams” keeps the depression right where it belongs.

I can’t stress enough that there are just so many songs, it’s nearly impossible to not find something you like.

Here’s the thing: there’s a problem with this grand diversity, and it’s that human taste tends to be more specific. The pop fanatic in me is in, well… love, with the majority of these pieces, yet on more worldly tracks like “Love Is Like Jazz,” and “World Love,” my mind wishes to wander elsewhere. However, I’ve heard oh-so-much testimony claiming that those less-ordinary tracks are superbly refreshing compared to most of the half-assed pop music showcased in malls and sock-hops around the world.

So what do you take away from this? There’s a love song for everyone on 69 Love Songs. Everyone. Seriously, take some time and listen to a few tracks. Maybe if we’re lucky Greg will put up a few of his favorites. If you like them, go to a record store and buy a copy. It’s been 10 years now since we first heard word of this new Magnetic Fields album, think about that. It’s been 10 years since Bill Clinton, since the 90’s. That all seems so ancient now that 2009 is on our minds, but 69 Love Songs is still relevant, still damn fantastic 10 years later.

Label: Merge Records

Release Date: Sept 7 1999

Track List:

CD 1

  1. “Absolutely Cuckoo” – 1:34
  2. “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” – 4:16
  3. “All My Little Words” – 2:46 (vocal by LD Beghtol)
  4. “A Chicken with Its Head Cut Off” – 2:41
  5. “Reno Dakota” – 1:05 (vocal by Claudia Gonson)
  6. “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” – 2:22
  7. “Come Back from San Francisco” – 2:48 (vocal by Shirley Simms)
  8. “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” – 3:43 (vocal by Dudley Klute, violin by Ida Pearle)
  9. “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” – 2:25
  10. “The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be” – 1:11
  11. “I Think I Need a New Heart” – 2:32
  12. “The Book of Love” – 2:42
  13. “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long” – 2:33
  14. “How Fucking Romantic” – 0:58 (vocal by Klute)
  15. “The One You Really Love” – 2:53
  16. “Punk Love” – 0:58
  17. “Parades Go By” – 2:56
  18. “Boa Constrictor” – 0:58 (vocal by Simms)
  19. “A Pretty Girl Is Like…” – 1:50
  20. “My Sentimental Melody” – 3:07 (vocal by Beghtol)
  21. “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing” – 2:27
  22. “Sweet-Lovin’ Man” – 4:59 (vocal by Gonson)
  23. “The Things We Did and Didn’t Do” – 2:11

CD 2

  1. “Roses” – 0:27 (vocal by Beghtol)
  2. “Love Is Like Jazz” – 2:56
  3. “When My Boy Walks Down the Street” – 2:38
  4. “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old” – 2:03
  5. “Very Funny” – 1:26 (vocal by Klute, arrangement by Gonson)
  6. “Grand Canyon” – 2:28
  7. “No One Will Ever Love You” – 3:14 (vocal by Simms)
  8. “If You Don’t Cry” – 3:06 (vocal by Gonson)
  9. “You’re My Only Home” – 2:17
  10. “(Crazy for You But) Not That Crazy” – 2:18
  11. “My Only Friend” – 2:01
  12. “Promises of Eternity” – 3:46 (arrangement and instruments by Chris Ewen)
  13. “World Love” – 3:07 (arrangement by Gonson)
  14. “Washington, D.C.” – 1:53 (vocal by Gonson)
  15. “Long-Forgotten Fairytale” – 3:37 (vocal by Klute)
  16. “Kiss Me Like You Mean It” – 2:00 (vocal by Simms)
  17. “Papa Was a Rodeo” – 5:01 (vocal by Stephin Merritt and Simms)
  18. “Epitaph for My Heart” – 2:50
  19. “Asleep and Dreaming” – 1:53 (arrangement and keyboards by Daniel Handler)
  20. “The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing” – 2:46
  21. “The Way You Say Good-Night” – 2:44 (vocal by Beghtol)
  22. “Abigail, Belle of Kilronan” – 2:00
  23. “I Shatter” – 3:09

CD 3

  1. “Underwear” – 2:49
  2. “It’s a Crime” – 3:54 (vocal by Klute, arr. and all instruments by Ewen)
  3. “Busby Berkeley Dreams” – 3:36 (arr. by Gonson)
  4. “I’m Sorry I Love You” – 3:06 (vocal by Simms)
  5. “Acoustic Guitar” – 2:37 (vocal by Gonson)
  6. “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” – 3:10
  7. “Love in the Shadows” – 2:54
  8. “Bitter Tears” – 2:51 (vocal by Beghtol)
  9. “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget” – 1:55
  10. “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” – 2:19 (vocal by Gonson/Merritt, guitar by Gonson)
  11. “Experimental Music Love” – 0:29
  12. “Meaningless” – 2:08
  13. “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin” – 1:46
  14. “Queen of the Savages” – 2:12
  15. “Blue You” – 3:03 (vocal by Klute, whilsting by Gonson, theremin by Ewen)
  16. “I Can’t Touch You Anymore” – 3:05
  17. “Two Kinds of People” – 1:10
  18. “How to Say Goodbye” – 2:48
  19. “The Night You Can’t Remember” – 2:17
  20. “For We Are the King of the Boudoir” – 1:14 (vocal by Beghtol)
  21. “Strange Eyes” – 2:01 (vocal by Simms)
  22. “Xylophone Track” – 2:47 (harmonium by Beghtol)
  23. “Zebra” – 2:15 (vocal by Gonson)

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