A belatedly mathematical celebration of an indie pop masterwork for its 20th anniversary
In the interest of cutting to the chase, let’s assume that anyone reading this knows why the Magnetic Fields’ staggeringly clever and poignant 69 Love Songs is modern pop’s meta-masterpiece and exquisite compendium of the previous millennium’s musical tropes.
And for its 20th anniversary we’re celebrating every piece of it by chopping it up into math, quantifying it like it’s too good for but still deserves. Not all 69 songs are classics but they all belong on this classic. That’s just the way love goes. Commence.
- “My Sentimental Melody”
It would be a copout to rank something like “Punk Love” dead last because it’s still more or less serving its purpose as a joke. “My Sentimental Melody” falls prey to the obvious drawback of 69 Love Songs, though: an inclusion on an already stuffed gambit that doesn’t make its case. The fact it was written ten years prior underscores this, though it’s saved by its sheer innocuousness on the astonishing Vol. 1, a hidden palate cleanser.
- “Punk Love”
“Punk Love” still sucks, but the fact Stephin Merritt thinks this is what punk sounds like is hilarious, or maybe he’s just toying with people’s expectation that he’d think punk sounds like this.
LD Beghtol’s quick investment pitch, like most of 69 Love Songs’ least brilliant ideas, is better off existing and supporting the ultimate goal to reach the set’s exalted magic number than being cut. But the one-two coupling of “Roses” and “Love Is Like Jazz” to kick off Vol. 2 is an easy way to briefly test consumers’ faith in the whole shebang.
- “Love Is Like Jazz”
One of the only 69 Love Songs that’s fairly universally reviled, “Love Is Like Jazz” is some pretty hysterical beatnik bullshit, and if it were only about half the length, then maybe it would stay funny all the way to the end.
- “Blue You
Portended some of Merritt’s worst impulses, c.f. Showtunes, the second half of i. He’s got a knack for movie music of course, and “Blue You” stands out from this often lightweight music with real ominousness, but it’s hard to read as harmless in retrospect.
- “The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing”
Spirited, inane, familiar-feeling, you can generally tell when one of the 69 wasn’t written specifically for this project. Love is a sham, people, even when you love an album.
- “Very Funny”
The song’s “about” its trick ending, which requires its overwrought setup, but the vast majority of it is the overwrought setup.
- “Experimental Music Love”
It’s real warm of Stephin to fold Steve Reich into his conception of 1900s pop.
- “Two Kinds of People”
The self-absorption of performative couples deserved a more musically replayable skewering from this thing. Maybe if Facebook existed in 1999, Stephin Merritt would’ve imparted more urgency to the cause.
- “Epitaph for My Heart”
The faux-madrigal intro is a lot better than the proper song, which isn’t too special to begin with but loses charity when replacing a better musical idea and lasts a little long to boot.
- “How Fucking Romantic”
You’ll never hear another troubled-relationship tune that sputters, “You treat me like a dancing bear.” Even when Merritt’s exploring the most cliché-ridden subgenre of songwriting, he can’t escape his own giant capacity for unforgettable images. Tuneless, though.
- “Promises of Eternity”
Merritt’s gulping vocal performance is one of his showiest, and this Glen Campbell pastiche might have fit on The Charm of the Highway Strip if he cut it sober. But unless Magnetic-Fields-plus-timpani is enough of a hook for you, you’ll prefer most of the surrounding tunes.
- “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old”
A nursery rhyme in Merritt’s spectral bass essentially beats The Lonely Island’s “YOLO” to the punch in 1999. A little too droll, this one, but always pretty.
- “The One You Really Love”
An indelible zither-and-washboard tune by the only person on Earth who makes indelible zither-and-washboard tunes.
- “The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be”
Unlike “My Sentimental Melody,” this has everything a palate cleanser on 69 Love Songs should have: A memorable title, a memorable sound effect (Beghtol’s dulcimer-like Marxophone), and a 71-second running time.
- “My Only Friend”
“Some of us can only live in songs of love and trouble / Some of us can only live in bubbles,” sings Merritt on one of 69 Love Songs’ most heartfelt cuts, a tribute to the real love of his life: Billie Holiday. But in this bizarro world, we don’t exactly come to 69 Love Songs for the heartfelt, at least not insofar as it applies to real relationships. Brilliant song but Merritt’s somber baritone needs all the sarcastic undercutting it can get.
- “It’s a Crime”
Never been able to figure out why this percolating reggae song’s always irritated slightly, and it sounds better today, but the third-longest track on the entire opus doesn’t quite earn that distinction, and the chief pitfall when ranking tunes on a Perfect Album seems to be whether the song leaves you wanting less or more. A little less, please.
- “Love in the Shadows”
“Love in the shadows is the only kind,” intones Merritt on this hushed, Leonard Cohen-esque piece, which feels like a secret highlight in mood but never quite holds up to the light.
- “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing”
Another tune that’s stuck in the purgatory of merely being a cog in the great 69 Love Songs machine: Rhyming the title with “in Paris or in Lansing” is fish in a barrel for Stephin Merritt, and the lovely melody is comparative off-the-rack.
- “If You Don’t Cry”
Usually Claudia Gonson is there to disrupt Merritt’s most programmatic impulses, so this is her rare robot turn, apropros for the destroyed chorus: “If you don’t cry / It isn’t love / If you don’t cry / Then you just don’t feel it deep enough.”
- “Parades Go By”
An impressive, yearning-Disney-villain solitude ballad sung over a bed of psychedelic squelches. But of all the songs here, probably the one with the most tenuous connection to love.
- “I Can’t Touch You Anymore”
The contained stress of this minor-key pounder comes through even in Stephin Merritt’s muted mumble, and the crunchy MIDI brushes have the bonus of evoking grinding teeth.
- “The Things We Did and Didn’t Do”
A good, ascendant arrangement that paradoxically works as a coda for both Vol. 1 and one of the best tunes on the whole set makes all the points it needs about relationship failings that can’t be taken back.
- “Kiss Me Like You Mean It”
This hummable (proven indisputably by the third “verse”) gospel satire with a spirited Shirley Simms vocal apparently ended up in a real commercial for diamonds. Maybe she was a little too spirited.
- “Bitter Tears”
Reaching the tier of 69 Love Songs where the tunes are neither jaw-dropping nor wearing out their welcome, it’s helpful to remember that a “middling” tune on this set would be the second-best song on, say, 2010’s Realism. LD Beghtol provides the right casual desperateness of a fully realized pop ballad that Elvis could’ve sang, and how dark is it that Merritt’s Phil Spector-inspired track would have a gun in the chorus?
- “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”
Merritt singing out of range has the bonus of imparting some feeling to this lovely, OMD-inspired synthpop arrangement.
- “Strange Eyes”
A Stephin Merritt song in 5/4 time! Shirley Simms tackles this nervy, bubbling track with a vocal that oddly takes after Brazilian Tropicalia. A good, propulsive race to the finish that sums up a lot of the chaotic feelings that precede it.
- “Queen of the Savages”
A snappy, offensive tune that unfortunately exemplifies Merritt’s penchant for taking liberties with off-color racial dynamics, but that doesn’t make it less outrageously funny or catchy. At the very least, 69 Love Songs doesn’t pretend the past it draws on was societally better even if it makes the case musically (and even then, Merritt would never give up his beloved synthesizers.)
- “World Love”
Speaking of racism, the best farfetched genre exercise on 69 Love Songs works better than the jazz or punk ones because it upends a hokey musical idea in itself, “world music.” This one cris-crosses Merritt’s audacious cliché-screwing with a whole other layer of cringe: “we are black and white and we dance all night” Plus, Afropop guitars are always gorgeous, even mocking ones.
- “When My Boy Walks Down the Street”
Sometimes Merritt keeps it simple. This is an easy-enough garage-pop ditty about romantic pride, and the subversion of gender norms, obviously more novel in 1999 but also obviously still relevant, expands the possible meanings of that pride. And little else.
VIDEO: “Papa Was A Rodeo” by The Magnetic Fields
- “Abigail, Belle of Kilronan”
Of the two 69 Love Songs inclusions that concern soldiers, this is the less funny one. But Merritt’s diction (the impressive way he smooths that title over the militaristic strum pattern) and musicality (that unexpected minor chord after the first sequence of each verse) is clearly at its peak, even on a lesser tune like this one.
- “I Shatter”
One of Stephin Merritt’s fun games with himself. A two-note vocal, vocoded into guttural farts, over a squeaky cello loop. It doesn’t need to be three-minutes-plus, but it’s a suitable envoi for Vol. 2.
- “Long-Forgotten Fairytale”
Dudley Klute is mostly utilized to not blend in with the music he was selected for, but here he’s the perfect complement to that thwacking bass, scraping synth riff, and balm of a chorus. This one doesn’t need to be thought about too hard, and 69 Love Songs needed a few of those.
- “Absolutely Cuckoo”
The overture. If nothing else, this should be one of the most familiar tunes just by the Pavlovian response it sets up that you’re about to hear a major work. Perhaps the major work.
- “The Way You Say Good-Night”
Some of the best tunes on 69 Love Songs open and snap shut on one perfect idea, in this case, “The way you say good-night / I dream of all day long,” followed by the spicy, meta-reflexive, “I could write a song about the way you say good-night.” Replacing oscillating synths with proto-“Viva La Vida” pumping violins didn’t hurt either. But even though it’s impossible to imagine Merritt singing this one and LD Beghtol was the right choice, the overall earnest affect keeps it shy of the upper echelons.
- “Xylophone Track”
One of the pleasures of 69 Love Songs is that the urgency to fill the song quota led an iconoclast to musical places he’d never gone before and will likely never go again. This strange mystical blues in Merritt’s lowest bass (and, in the background, LD Beghtol’s highest falsetto) sounds like no one else, except maybe if you chopped and screwed Jim Morrison or something.
- “I Don’t Want to Get Over You”
Perhaps the most archetypal Magnetic Fields song on the record, maybe ever. Merritt himself grumbled that his voice always sounds like “I Don’t Want to Get Over You.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not excellent, and his usual stacks of internal rhymes go hard.
- “You’re My Only Home”
One of the saddest songs on the album, and paradoxically, one of the most ridiculous, with appropriately morose alien-synth squirts punctuating lines like “When you cancel dinner plans / I wish I didn’t understand.” The ridiculousness only underscores the absurdity of toxic codependency. Brilliantly followed by “(Crazy for You But) Not That Crazy,” which is at least 50% healthier.
- “How to Say Goodbye”
The bone-dry, Merritt-sung flip to “The Way You Say Good-Night” features the jarring quatrain, “The thing I’ve spent my whole life waiting for / Has just walked out and locked the door / You can’t feel a thing and you won’t even try / But baby you know how to say goodbye.” Darker isn’t always better with 69 Love Songs, but it’s a safer bet.
A confession: “Yes, yes, yes / It was totally meaningless.” And “Ha ha ha / It was totally meaningless.” And then a slew of adverbs used in the variations. Validating, shallow, and impossible to get out of your head all at once.
- “Boa Constrictor”
Merritt enlisted Shirley Simms to sing this 58-second ditty because he already sounds like “love is wrapped around my heart like a boa constrictor, babe.” Balance between the hideous and the lovely remains one of his most important aspirations, and, almost always for the better, in 1999, he was achieving it constantly.
- “A Chicken with Its Head Cut Off”
Another formal exercise in a way: How to do a graceful, straight-faced Porter Wagoner parody with the most “bottom of the barrel” metaphor possible. If you ever needed to sell someone on this set in one line, ask them if they need “Who’d fall in love with a chicken with its head cut off?” in their life.
- “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget”
On this Scottish folk ditty that really exemplifies what a play for a MacArthur Genius Grant this whole opus really is, Merritt plays both a man who repeatedly threatens to turn into things (a cockroach, a hydrogen bomb, God himself) to win over a woman, whom Merritt also portrays on the chorus rebuffing every advance. The whole thing’s a fucking puppet show, really, and the rhymes (“kiss you on the neck” with “send thee back to Heck” are the usual scream.
- “I’m Sorry I Love You”
The botched Bo Diddley beat on this one typifies the classic helplessness of the chorus: “Well I’m sorry that I love you / It’s just a phase I’m going through.” One of Merritt’s catchiest songs ever, and one of Shirley Simms’ most memorable performances, which fades out like it could go on forever. Maybe 69 Loop Songs will materialize someday.
- “No One Will Ever Love You”
The unspecifics of this song are just too profound and cutting for a work that’s largely dead-eyed satire, which is why it attempts to compress Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk all into one song and why it’s entrusted to Shirley Simms. Call your tattoo artist, because here comes “Where is your sense of indignation?” and “Where is the madness that you promised me?” and obviously, “no one will ever love you for your honesty.”
- “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long”
In the same year as Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie,” their polar opposite among male musicians turned out this squeaky analog-pop dirty joke designed to make you rubberneck three times.
- “Come Back from San Francisco”
Shirley Simms is perfect on this one, inverting the solipsistic regionalism of “Washington D.C.,” which comes later, with a melody so rich you won’t even notice the arrangement’s so sparse. “Kiss me, I’ve quit smoking” is one of those eternal wisdoms buried beneath Merritt’s sarcastic veneer, and it feels like honey to excavate.
- “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”
Dudley Klute will grow on you, but this character won’t. This jaunty tune, complete with splish-splashing synth raindrops, is about the joys of being used, because one person’s toxic relationship is another’s highlight of their week. Demented delusion as flaw-resistent pop too irresistible to fuck up your day like even a cursory meditation on the words will.
- “For We Are the King of the Boudoir”
Beghtol’s belting, Merritt’s word choices (including “prowesslessnesslessness” but also calling his bedmate “old thing”), the medieval diction and harpsichord, all crammed into 74 seconds of flat-out ROFLMAO.
- “I Think I Need a New Heart”
As is fitting of the lone track on 69 Love Songs that mentions itself being played on the radio, “I Think I Need a New Heart” doesn’t feel like the mission statement, the deepest sentiment, the most daring exploration, or even the biggest hook among the three discs, but it does have the feel of The Single. The confidence of the calypso-indebted arrangement and Merritt’s surprising voice modulation on the chorus exude an authoritativeness over this project signal the great leap forward it was from 1995’s quite-great Get Lost. One of the biggest vertebrae in the spine of this thing.
- “Grand Canyon”
“Grand Canyon” is most of the things Stephin Merritt is at his best: A world-class chord-changer, rich and surprising melodist, utilizer of absurd metaphors and documenter of even crazier romantic promises, even a bit wistful in a way that the earnest could actually use. Not a stitch of “Grand Canyon” shows. All that’s missing is a big-time, skull-cracking lyric.
- “I Don’t Believe in the Sun”
Where 69 Love Songs really begins, and it’s an absolute monster of a melody, moaned fervently by Merritt and perfectly decked into mournful piano and other subtle elements including melancholy organ. Everything from here on out is simply ranking perfection against perfection.
- “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin”
For one minute and 46 seconds, Stephin Merritt rattles off truisms, fake truisms, and his unparalleled rhyming abilities as a non-rapper, without losing a breath or wasting a syllable, or even bringing in one of his trademark convoluted pulls like “Pantone 292” or “unboyfriendable.” The simple music itself is barely there but still felt, making such jaw-droppers as “It costs a lot more than it’s worth / And yet there is no substitute” and “It has no color in itself / But it can make you see rainbows” even more astounding with melodic facility.
- “A Pretty Girl Is Like…”
The most fucked-up song-as-song on 69 Love Songs, as opposed to a portrayal of a fucked-up relationship or character, and it knows it. But the places it draws offense from — sexism, violence, fucking minstrel shows — are unsettlingly but brilliantly foregrounded to show what desensitized fodder songwriters (such as Merritt’s idol Irving Berlin) have done with such ridiculous objectification and inappropriate metaphors. It’s not quite explicitly political, but in 2019 it’s never been more obvious that Merritt is a great critic in his songs. “A Pretty Girl Is Like…” is also a wonderful piece of music sans deconstruction, but I wouldn’t recommend getting used to singing along.
Stephin Merritt rarely exploits the sex appeal of his baritone; he does here, confusing love and death in French on the chorus of this savvy little spy-noir blues piece. “A pretty boy in his underwear / If there’s a better reason to jump for joy, who cares?” is one of the great axioms of 69 Love Songs, among other things.
- “Asleep and Dreaming”
The most delicate piece on 69 Love Songs. “I don’t know if you’re beautiful / Because I love you too much” is almost too ugly to bear as an idea written into words. That’s what the melody’s for, to soften it. To take the most horrible things we can think of and put them next to something as lovely as watching someone else dream.
- “Busby Berkeley Dreams”
This “outrageously beautiful” piano ballad taps into the hyperromantic musical numbers of cinema past (and, sure, present) to bring the narrator’s happy-relationship hallucinations into full Technicolor on choruses featuring “whirling stages” while his long-estranged wife just wants the damn divorce. He has the nerve to beckon you to kill him first, before asking if such dreams are dangerous. Insensible romance as frightened afterthought as emotionally explosive setpiece.
69 Love Songs ends with its funniest song, a drunken-accordion Cole Porter spoof in which Claudia Gonson eats the entire scene demanding “all the pearls in the world,” the great Pyramids, and (“Zelda looks lonely”) another Zebra from her long-suffering mate. Is it a shock that the conclusion is also the most cynical thing on the whole three-disc set? It’s far more surprising how much the cynicism justifies itself in rich comedy (lampooning the rich).
- “Acoustic Guitar”
Claudia Gonson’s name is usually on one of 69 Love Songs’ best. In this sparse, gorgeous little trifle, Merritt puts Steve Earle’s, Gwar’s and Charo’s names in her mouth, respectively, as she coaxes, pleads, and threatens the title instrument to bring back her girl. So self-contained, the conceit instantly clicking into place and holding court for two-and-a-half-minutes, it’s a typically astonishing example of the Magnetic Fields’ smartest and even sweetest impulses.
- “The Night You Can’t Remember”
“You don’t remember Paris, hon / But it remembers you,” sings Stephin Merritt in character as a Rockette who marries an army officer and bears his child in what sounds like it could only be possible as a blissful memory in song. Both a beautiful waltz and a crystallization of the sheer inanity of love songs whose consequences could never survive reality.
- “Washington, D.C.”
“It’s my baby’s kiss that keeps me coming back,” sings Claudia Gonson on 69 Love Songs’ most wistful tune. Around this point in the rankings, the music takes on some otherworldly ethereality that transcends what they’re doing entirely. Whatever they began as, whatever joke is being played, they somewhat start to become actual love songs, standards in their own right. The silly, soda-shop feel of the cheerleader chants, the geographical specificities, none of these things undercut the beaming sincerity. Yes, sincerity.
- “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”
“I am nothing without love,” Stephin Merritt admits at the end of this album’s most knowledgeable song, though he might just mean his songcraft. Other than the words and some handclaps, “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” has his band repeat the same three chords and indelible bassline the whole time, as he loses his patience with the title character and eventually shoots him in the name of Holland-Dozier-Holland. To say no one else could’ve written this song is an understatement. To say it’s one of the reasons that 69 Love Songs could well be the musical monument of the last century isn’t.
- “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!”
Merritt was wise to be selective about his duets, because every one is a killer. “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” might conceivably one of the darkest things on the set; “I’ve enjoyed making you miserable for years” predates the Mountain Goats’ own magnum opus Tallahassee by a few years but even that album’s Alpha couple don’t end up killing each other, merely hoping for it. Yet this is pure fun by design, the euphoria of the chord progression and ah-ah-ahs counterbalanced by violence and disgust. For too many people, this is love. Here’s where the well-adjusted can get something out of toxicity, too.
- “Sweet-Lovin’ Man”
Whether every other tune is about love or about love songs, Claudia Gonson’s true spotlight “Sweet-Lovin’ Man” has no subtext. It’s just warmth, joy, sunlight, physical and emotional rapture. And even Stephin Merritt acknowledges this or he wouldn’t have let it play out for five damn minutes. It’s even got a psychedelic rock guitar lick as a brief bridge. Give yourself over to the power of big-lunged emotional gigantism.
- “The Book of Love”
“The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” may be the philosophical key (and conclusion) to this behemoth, but “The Book of Love” is the legend, the hypothesis. No matter how archly goofy its punchlines about facts and figures are, this Peter Gabriel-certified, U2-biting ballad always lands on its chorus: “I love it when you sing to me.” Real people play it at their wedding, whether Merritt intended or not. Striving for objectivity, it’s probably the greatest achievement on 69 Love Songs. But there’s no such thing as objectivity in taste.
4. “(Crazy for You But) Not That Crazy”
The indie-rock “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is exactly what its title says, a pledge of devotion (“as if you were Ganesh”) but not blindness. And while Merritt’s character sounds hyperbolically unhinged anyway, brandishing ukuleles and building rocketships, the sensibility of the jangly, Stipe-esque chorus makes it sound more Earthbound than it actually is. Maybe one clue is the Glass Menagerie reference that hints the protagonist knows it’s all a façade. Or maybe the author’s insane choice of where to put the parentheses is a hint that we’re all mad anyway.
- “Papa Was a Rodeo”
Speaking of standards, 69 Love Songs’ other five-minute epic is the lonesome-cowboy-wanderer theme to end them all. There’s no other clichés being exploited on this ballad, though, not with opening lines like “I like your twisted point of view, Mike / I like your questioning eyebrows” and the alienation of “love was a trucker’s hand” in the chorus, or the mirrorball that resembles “a thousand swirling eyes.” You could extrapolate a whole thesis on Stephin Merritt’s greatest duet alone. But he didn’t duet alone; in the final third, Shirley Simms plays Nancy Sinatra to his Lee Hazlewood, if you believe either of them ever recorded anything as deep as this. I don’t.
- “All My Little Words”
“All My Little Words” isn’t necessarily where 69 Love Songs’ transcendence begins. But it’s where you feel your world opening up, all those cellos, banjos and buttered harmonies quickly making room in your brain for the company of 69 new guests. Everything elevates this one into a classic: The doleful tremolo guitar solo, the coinage of the classic Merritt-ism “unboyfriendable” on the second verse, the ultimate futility that LD Beghtol on his finest Magnetic Fields contribution “could never make you stay.” It’s with “All My Little Words” that Stephin Merritt’s magnum opus gets your full attention and never lets go even if it rarely gets better than this. It rarely gets worse, too.
- “Reno Dakota”
Look, you’ll have your own favorite song. But Claudia Gonson nails the very essence of this incredible feat in 65 seconds dense with references (sing it with me: Pantone 292), tricky-but-never-forced rhymes, and a melody you could sing with a toothbrush in your mouth. Funny, drunk, only tangentially related to love, “Reno Dakota” is everything this triple album promised in absolute miniature. Reduce these songs about love songs to their core and even a skeleton vignette like this one can support the entire album’s premise on its foundation. There’s no simpler way to access Stephin Merritt’s mastery of the technology of the English language or the human experience or his innate talent for acting as a conduit between his own cleverness and his fellow singers’ personalities. What an achievement.
AUDIO: The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs (Full Album)
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