The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs (1999/2000)

69 Love Songs

Album: 69 Love Songs
Artist: The Magnetic Fields
Year: 1999/2000
Reason Featured: #2 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 1999, #46 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000, #8 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Ten Albums of 1999, #9 Album for Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Albums of 1999
My Favorite Songs: Disc One: I Don’t Want to Get Over You, I Think I Need A New Heart, The Book of Love, Sweet-Lovin’ Man, The Things We Did and Didn’t Do; Disc Two: When My Boy Walks Down the Street, Grand Canyon, No One Will Ever Love You, Papa Was A Rodeo, Abigail, Belle of Kilronan; Disc Three: The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure, Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget, Yeah! Oh Yeah!, How to Say Goodbye, The Night You Can’t Remember
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (3/5), NME (8/10), Pitchfork (9.0/10), Robert Christgau (A+)
My Grade: 96%

Brief Disclaimer: I’m going through these Best of Lists one by one. Now that I’m on NME’s Best of 2000 list, this showed up since, presumably, it wasn’t released in the UK until 2000. Stateside, this was a big hit on critics’ lists in 1999. Hence the two different years mentioned above. Carrying on!

Yes, there is filler on 69 Love Songs. There’s obvious, even-Stephin-Merritt-knows-this-is-filler tracks (“How Fucking Romantic,” “Punk Love, “Love Is Like Jazz”) and other less obvious musical mehs (“The One You Really Love,” “A Pretty Girl is Like…,” “Underwear”). This is a three hour and three disc long exploration of what a love song can be. If you stare at anything gargantuan long enough, you’ll find plenty to criticize. But the fact Stephin Merritt hits so much more often than he misses here is enough to erect an edifice in his honor. For this opus in particular, he cemented himself as one of the greatest and most distinctive songwriters of all time.

The thing that’s always impressed me about The Magnetic Fields / Stephin Merritt / 69 Love Songs is their / his / its ability to twist musical genres or the very idea of melody and love itself so as to make it appear their / his / its idea in the first place. There are plenty of typical Magnetic Fields songs on here: instant classics packed with shiny synthesizers hopping along in optimistic bliss as their lyrics drag their feet in depression (“The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” etc). But 69 Love Songs is significant for showing Stephin Merritt had a musical vocabulary to match his way with words.

This was the first Magnetic Fields record to dabble in instrumentation beyond intricate and twinkly synthesizers and guitars. There are accordion led waltzes (“My Sentimental Melody,” “The Night You Can’t Remember,” “Zebra”), folksy strummers and piano ballads to jerk out tears with tales of love won and lost (“The Book of Love,” “The Things We Did and Didn’t Do,” “Papa Was A Rodeo”) and alternately bleak and rejoicing nineties, Lou-Reed-lethargic guitar rock songs (“I Don’t Want to Get Over You,” “When My Boy Walks Down the Street,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”). The vastness of styles is all tied together by Merritt’s consistence as a clever and moving wordsmith. He can make you laugh and cry on command.

The idea of fate is somewhat cheap and unprovable but if Stephin Merritt was born to do anything, it was to write love songs.

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