Sunday, March 2, 2008

7. The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs (1999)

I am convinced that the phrase "more than the sum of its parts" was coined to describe the slippery magic of 69 Love Songs. Taken individually, each of the album's elements are slightly enjoyable, perhaps, but not amazingly impressive - sort of like a well-executed bunt. Only when experienced all together does it become clear that the album is a home run.

For years I had only heard 69 Love Songs piecemeal, and didn't understand what all the fuss was about until I listened to it all the way through. Down at KDVS, they had a promotional CD featuring "highlights" from the album. I don't remember exactly which songs were on it, but after having read reviews comparing the band to Belle and Sebastian, I wasn't too impressed. Belle and Sebastian songs were delicately woven fortresses of melody and instrumentation; Magnetic Fields tracks came off as disposable and flimsy by comparison.

A few years later, Yoggoth began sharing his enthusiasm for the album and in an effort to spread the word, he made his own "highlights" mix and passed it along to a select few. This I liked a good deal more, perhaps having lowered my expectations after the first encounter. Even still, the album seemed more of an intriguing novelty than a serious indie-pop heavyweight contender. Finally, in grad school, I got my hands on all three discs, and listened to the album all the way through, and it was only then that I truly understood.

Because 69 Love Songs is a once-in-a-lifetime musical balancing act. At first glance you'd think this album could have been better in many tangible ways. For instance, about a third of the songs are gimmicky throwaways that could have been jettisoned and the album wouldn't have been too much worse for the wear, right? And about a third of the songs sound like they were written in two minutes flat and recorded in three minutes flat with no instrumentation other than a ukelele. Besides, in small doses, sure the lyrical conceit is funny, but over the course of three CDs doesn't it eventually exhaust its "songwriting exercise" charm?

Such were a few of my thoughts as I began absorbing this 69-headed beast. But as I tried sharpening all my criticisms, I soon realized that "fixing" any of these elements would not have actually made the album any better. Yes, only about 25 of these songs are truly first-rate. But 69 Love Songs would not have been better as 25 Love Songs, many other albums are 25 Love Songs! The charm of 69 Love Songs is that is it a big smorgasbord of tracks that the listener can simply get lost in and uniform quality is not really the priority. Released in 1999, 69 Love Songs is actually the ultimate album for the mp3 age: it almost begs listeners to compile their own mixes of album highlights out of its sprawling potpourri. But just because some songs are better than others doesn't mean it shouldn't have been released as a three-disc album. Better to have given us the whole collection and let us pick our own favorites.

And yes, a three-disc album featuring only ukelele would have been torture - so Stephen Merritt knew to change up the predominantly acoustic instrumentation with a choice sprinkling of electronic tracks. Just when we've heard one too many piano ballads, a bouncy synth-pop song comes along to reignite the flagging momentum. And yes, 69 songs sung by Merritt and his admittedly soothing croon would have nevertheless become dreadfully monotonous - so he divvied up the vocal duties between himself and four other distinctively different singers, male and female. This way, even though we know he wrote every song himself, the album still has the aura of a group project, which gives it an energy it would have otherwise lacked. And yes, taking even the best songs here and playing them alongside a killer Belle and Sebastian or Elliott Smith track would probably make them seem cheap and somewhat lazy by comparison, but if you stand back and comprehend the sheer diversity of styles and sounds on the album, you will realize that very few albums from any era can touch it. And yes, most of the songs are laced with heavy doses of irony and sarcasm, but some of them, such as "My Only Friend" and "Busby Berkeley Dreams," are quite serious.

So there you go. It's a miracle that it all works, but in pop music, miracles arise from the most ephemeral ingredients. Just think about it: there are so many ways this album could have been bad. If all the songs were jokes, then this album might have been good for a couple of laughs. But they're not. If all the songs were cheesy ukelele throwaways, then you'd be insane to utter this in the same breath as Belle and Sebastian. But they're not. If all the songs were sung by Stephen Merritt, then you'd want to smash your computer into 69 little pieces. But they're not. He anticipated every criticism one might have made about the project and he addressed it with just the right dose of whatever-it-is. I'd give him more credit aside from the fact that no other Magnetic Fields album, as far as I can tell, comes close to achieving this kind of aesthetic harmony.

Maybe Stephen Merritt should consider doing 69 Religious Songs.


yoggoth said...

Holiday is the only other Magnetic Fields album that's on par with 69 Love Songs.

Little Earl said...

Your turn.

yoggoth said...

My turn already? Okay... I'll attack Indonesia from Siam with 12 armies.

Little Earl said...

I had a hotel on Marvin Gardens! Why couldn't you have landed on Marvin Gardens?!

herr zrbo said...

Please don't move the robber onto my mountains, pleeeze!