There are times these days where I absolutely hate Stephin Merritt, where I’m overwhelmingly infuriated by his latest work with the Magnetic Fields, the meandering yet singularly-purposed three-disc master opus 69 Love Songs. I hate him because his songs disturb my sleep, interrupt my dreams. Night after night of tossing and turning is repeatedly punctuated by me being startled into consciousness, with “I Think I Need a New Heart” or “Absolutely Cuckoo” or “If You Don’t Cry” throbbing through my synapses, melodies clinging to my brain long after the last listen.
But let me explain. This is the first Magnetic Fields release I’ve bought. I admit it, I’m a bit of a bandwagon jumper on this one. Sure, I’d known of the “genius” of Stephin Merritt for years, but had never gotten around to actually hearing anything of his. The ever-increasing murmur about this release essentially forced my hand. I’ve never been so glad to lose.
Vocal duties are shared across 69 Love Songs by Merritt and a rotating cast of golden throats under Merritt’s direction, propelling the collection to contrasting peaks and valleys—from Merritt’s own trademark deep-and-low dirge of “You’re My Only Home” to Claudia Gonson’s soulful “Sweet-Lovin’ Man” to Shirley Simms’ hypnotic understatement of “If You Don’t Cry” to perhaps the crowning achievement, coming midway through Volume 1, Dudley Klute’s heartstopping, impassioned soaring vocal on “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”, taking the escapist theme of the song to breathtakingly literal heights in the song’s final moments.
And boy, does Merritt ever give them all lyrics to sing, covering what must be all of love’s bases. Ranging from the ultra-silly and absurd to the tortured, angst-ridden, to the true-blue head-over-heels. There’s variety on 69 Love Songs to please the lovesick and the sick-of-love alike. From depressive, to goofy, to spiteful, to comic. And I’m inclined to believe every word, especially after digesting the wonderfully thick interview booklet that is included when you buy the three-disc set (each disc is also sold separately), which doubles as a manifesto for the record and as the author’s own analysis of the work.
The only way I can musically describe this release, to those who haven’t heard it, is to say that it’s the most organically synthesized, most precisely sloppy, most experimentally BUBBLEGUM record I’ve ever heard. Showtunes are reconfigured as indie rock (see “The Night You Can’t Remember”), Irish Jigs are naturally nestled between country yarns and tradeoff pop duets (“Bitter Tears” / “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget” / “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!”). Synths, while extensively used, are only overtly “electronic” on the songs that need to be. Guitars are used sparingly, but to maximum effect. For its epic length, the collection occasionally (rarely) drags, but when it does, it doesn’t for long.
Argh!!!! I don’t know. It’s hard to wrap your arms around, let alone digest, everything that’s going on in a release this massive yet enthralling, no matter how much I try. Which, it seems, is why these songs continue to plague my waking and sleeping hours alike. Which, of course, is what makes 69 Love Songs such an achievement.