Magnetic Fields’ Opus, ’69 Love Songs,’ Turns 20

Magnetic Fields’ Opus, ’69 Love Songs,’ Turns 20

In the early 2000s, a friend threw out my name as a potential mover/driver to transport Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields and all his belongings cross-country. Just a few years earlier, Merritt’s band the Magnetic Fields had released 69 Love Songs and I was still deeply under its spell. Hell yes, I would take on the nightmare-daydream of transporting one of my songwriting heroes from New York to San Francisco. Or was it San Francisco to New York?

I can’t recall. But I can remember that opportunity flowering open for a minute in the world, that conjectured road trip unfolding rapidly and luxuriously in my mind like multicolored Alice in Wonderland kudzu. It sounded like a silly indie road movie: the straight 23-year-old meat-and-potatoes drunken lummox bro loading up the gay, vegan, eccentric and driving across the country in a U-Haul. Their only common interests: oblivion and melancholy. What could go wrong between this zany duo?

Three distinct volumes clocking in at a total runtime of nearly three hours, 69 Love Songs was a grandiose grab for artistic real estate that still manages to be the anti-Infinite Jest. In large helpings, DFW feels like part of an incel starter kit, but a young man who also knows all of 69 Love Songs well, you wouldn’t just let him date a younger sibling, you’d make excuses for him when he gets too drunk at a family dinner.

At a time when indie rock seemed obsessed with breaking itself down and squinting into the apocalyptic future, Merritt delighted in canonical formalism. Chad Stocker of Detroit rock band the High Strung has praised recording to an analog 4-track cassette deck as such: “The limitations are endless.” On 69 Love Songs, Merritt similarly embraces the limitations of classic pop forms as a launch pad for expansive melancholic rumination.

His source material is, well, everything — not just verse-chorus-verse and Holland Dozier Holland, but Broadway show tunes, torch songs, ’80s synth pop, a cappella, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin. He sends up free jazz and beat poetry, experimental psychedelia, traditional Celtic folk, Olympia punk rock.

69 Love Songs was a wobbly monument of romantic devotion as sprawling, ramshackle and magical as the Watts Towers, the masterpiece of outsider American architecture built over a span of 33 years in downtown L.A. by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia. Like Rodia’s towers of scrap, the triple album is rock solid, articulate and cohesive, every inch of it marked by the hands of one manic madman with a singular grand vision.

A vision of love? Well, yes, but not the diminished, downsized pea of a word we throw around — we love Elizabeth Warren, we love sweet potato fries — not “luv,” certainly not a fucking heart emoji.

These are love songs, which is to say most of songs have had love carved out of them; they’re about love fragments, love hangovers, love comedowns, love’s tragic byproducts: out-of-love, unlove, nonlove, unlove, post-love, anti-love, dislove, mal-love, loveless, lovelorn.

For Merritt, love isn’t a red flower plucked from a stony hillside, it’s the hole that flower leaves when it’s uprooted: a tiny dark cavity that widens rapidly into a fissure, and, as the ground collapses beneath your feet, you ride a cascade of soil and stones down into a cave, a cavern, a secret catacomb packed with the stacked bones of desire — indeed, an entire forgotten underground world devoted solely to the yearning of one human for another.

Let’s run with this metaphor: one world disappearing and another secret, forbidden, unseen world taking its place. The record opens on “Absolutely Cuckoo” with Merritt admonishing the listener not to fall in love with him because he’s crazy. Then, like Gene Wilder welcoming those lucky children to the Wonka chocolate factory, he absolutely makes us fall in love with him — despite (or because of) his insanity.

The second track, “I Don’t Believe in the Sun,” is more nihilistic than Norwegian black metal. We’ve all been advised after a heartbreak that “it’s not the end of the world.” In this song, it’s true, it’s not the end of the world, Merritt’s heartbreak is undoing our entire galaxy. But he quickly builds a new world in its place, a world that’s morbid, bleak and sinister, stitched through with anguish but also comforting and wildly engaging, an adorable little hell.

The band is a melancholy indie orchestra, a dusty garage sale of outgrown toys, an enchanting graveyard of keytars, 8-bit video game synths, tiny toy instruments, plastic children’s castles — the Disney Princess Ultimate Dream Castle, Castle Grayskull, My Little Pony Crystal Empire Castle — every child’s play castle ever. The molded plastic projections of their lonely daydreams have been dumped in a deep haunted cove on the far side of some tropical isle, and the music is the reef of marine life that’s grown out of that blossoming decay.

The instruments featured on the recording? Read this list out loud: acoustic guitar, electric guitar, acoustic-electric 12-string guitar, classical guitar, fado guitar, lap steel guitar, springs and slinky guitar, bass guitar, ukulele, baritone ukulele, ukelin, violin-uke, violin, mandolin, autoharp, marxophone, tremoloa, sitar, cello, flute, Roland harmonizer, vocoder, saw, synclavier, keyboards, piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, organ, harmonium, rhythm units, recorder, pennywhistle, Maestro wind synthesizer, melodica, Paul Revere jug, rumba box, kalimbas, drum kit, rain stick, chimes, maracas, conga, bongos, triangle, bells, tambourine, washboard, steel drum, chicken shakers, finger cymbals, pipes, bamboo harp, spirit chaser, sleigh bells, fingersnaps, thunder sheet, cabasas, cowbells, gong, xylophone, zither.

The dizzying list feels a little like On Beyond Zebra, the Dr. Seuss book in which he explicates all the letters that come after the letter “Z,” useful letters like thnad, yuzz,and vroo. The list of instrumentation would feel a little self-aggrandizing if every marxophone, ukelin and tremoloa didn’t feel perfectly placed.

The prolix protean shape-shifter Merritt is there for every letter of our bizarro alphabet, changing costumes for us in full view: a lonesome cowboy on a knock-kneed horse so tiny that Merritt’s shiny cowboy boots drag on the ground; a bullfrog swollen with passion, mired in a swamp of solitude and crooning to an immovable moon, begging for a man, any man — Mike, Andy, Jon, Tom, an unnamed corpse — to kiss him and break the spell. A morose hobo with clown shoes, a stovepipe hat and a boozy red nose — when the flower he hands you squirts you in the face, you taste not water but real tears.

At turns, Merritt is coy, dapper, despondent, flirtatious, plucky, weary, baffled, beleaguered, but he’s always himself (even when someone else is singing) always a misandrist transfixed by love. At every turn, Merritt complicates, compromises and contradicts his beloved love: love is dumb, love is a scam, love is dying, love is dead, you never loved me, I never loved you, love never existed.

Ah, but who would say “I don’t love you” in so many brilliant, poetic deranged ways but the person who loves you most? Merritt may not be the stalker we deserved, but he’s the one we wanted.

When 69 Love Songs came out, it inverted our expectations of the singers of love songs and the focus of their desire. The narrator’s object of affection is almost always male, and men loving men feels so natural, so confident and so blasé on 69 Love Songs that the listener feels like, duh, of course true romantic love is between two men.

On the rare occasion that heterosexual love is on offer, it’s an articulate female voice wooing her male Rapunzel. Or maybe Merritt just made gender irrelevant: in the 69 Love Songs universe, the only genders are the Needed and the Needer.

At 20 years old, 69 Love Songs still feels like a substrate for a fan’s musical fantasies. Listening to it, I can hear Merritt in conversation with other artists. I know “Papa was a Rodeo” probably began as a mishearing of “Papa was a Rolling Stone” but the Bee Gees wrote “To Love Somebody” for Otis Redding and Bruce Springsteen wrote “Hungry Heart” for the Ramones so I’m going to believe Merritt wrote the song for the Murder City Devils and be richer for it.

Listening to Merritt again after neglecting his opus for a long time, I can hear anew how much he affected me as a songwriter. Your voice is just your voice — and any voice is good if you mean it, if love hurt your heart the right way: bellow it like a bull walrus fallen down a well. Sarcasm’s greatest role in a song is as a launch pad for sincerity. To paraphrase Ike and Tina, nice and smooth is always less interesting than nice and rough. A song should push and pull you like it’s shaking you by the lapels.

Nearly 20 years later, I’m still heartbroken that I didn’t get to make that long, grueling, anxiety-filled drive with one of my songwriter heroes. The trip never materialized — or maybe I just didn’t get the gig? I can’t recall. But, in hindsight, it’s probably for the best Merritt and I never got in a U-Haul together.

A million things can happen on a coast-to-coast road trip and most of them are very bad. Also, missing out on the opportunity for a miserable-to-disastrous cross-country drive with one of the greatest songwriters of my lifetime has proved to be an enduring regret.

But if that secret world I glimpsed from the mere suggestion of a road trip with the moribund genius didn’t flower into being, secret worlds still exist. Twenty years later, 69 Love Songs still thrills with the power of pure imagination.

(Photo credit: Merge Records)

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