[26 March 2007]
As a collection of books, Continuum’s 33 1/3 series is remarkably free of continuity. And that’s one of the qualities that tend to make these pocket-sized profiles of great albums equal to their subject matter. Some are detailed examinations of the music, others place the release in the context of the times, and still others create dictionaries from the words found in the record’s lyrics.
Okay, that last example isn’t exactly typical. This particular method of exploration is favored perhaps only by LD Beghtol and his wonderfully loopy, word-obsessed plundering of 69 Love Songs, the 1999 triple-album by the Magnetic Fields. Occupying the first half of the book, Beghtol’s “All his little words” is no ordinary lexicon. But, then, the root material is far from ordinary, either. Spread across a trio of CDs, the record’s three-score and nine cuts are an amazing assemblage of finely crafted pop tunes dedicated to the myriad facets of love. Since its release, Stephin Merritt, the principal architect of this mind-bogglingly accomplished record, has received his due recognition as one of the best songwriters of his generation.
But is Stephin Merritt truly of his generation? In some ways, absolutely. Rodgers and Hart never would have issued a ditty dubbed “How Fucking Romantic”. And a song like “Underwear”, in which both the sexes are fetishized by a male singer, would never have landed in a set by Ol’ Blue Eyes. On the other hand, many of Merritt’s melodies are hugely inspired by an age gone by. Look under the letter B in Beghtol’s lexicon to find “Berkeley, Busby ‘Buzz’ (1895-1976), famed director-choreographer”, who, in Merritt’s lyrics, inspires dreams of dancing, both “on whirling stages” (“Busby Berkeley Dreams”, natch) and among the stars (“The Way You Say Goodnight”). Beghtol digs into less specific subjects, as well, offering humorous definitions that Webster’s has likely never considered. The pronoun “we”, for instance, is cited as appearing in three 69LS numbers. Beghtol then goes on to reference its use in the pronoun “The Royal We” (you know, that insufferable form of the first person wherein the speaker assumes the status of a single-minded collective; like the Borg, only pompous), writing: “Some say this archaic nominative nicety should be extended to pregnant women, persons with dissociative identity disorder, and the hosts of tapeworms”.
Aside form the “All his little words” lexicon, the other substantial chunk of 69 Love Songs: A Field Guide is occupied by “These familiar things”, a track-by-track annotation of the album accompanied by interviews. So, in addition to the duration, tempo, time signature, key, and featured vocalist of each song, we are also treated to a handful of quotes about the writing, context, production, performance, or impression of each entry. Since LD is, himself, a featured vocalist on the album, he includes his own select quotes, as well as those from the rest of the Magnetic Fields gang of Merritt, Claudia Gonson (keyboards and vocals), John Woo (banjo, guitar), Sam Devol (cello), Daniel Handler (aka, Lemony Snicket; accordion), and a host of others. As but one example of the extra tidbits provided in this section, did you know that, as Stephin explains, “Sweet-Lovin’ Man” was a “programmed synth pop tune originally meant for The Wayward Bus”?
Reading 69 Love Songs: A Field Guide, you will learn all sorts of minutiae you never knew before. Few of these trivia items will give you a more well-rounded picture of the world or help to heal your soul. Perhaps other 33 1/3 books possess greater emotional weight. But few could encourage as much active listening to the subject matter as this volume does. (And do any others contain a crossword puzzle?!) The album this book profiles is imperfect, yet astounding. Only a few blips here and there (see the “bottom ten 69LS songs” section of Appendix D for the key offenders) keep 69 Love Songs from being a masterpiece. All the same, it was voted the second best album of 1999, according to the survey of critics conducted for the once mighty Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop Poll. It remains my favorite from that year. Regardless of your appreciation for the music, LD Beghtol’s book is a fun, passionate, and wonderfully peculiar dissection of the excellent album it lovingly explores.