Saturday, December 2, 2006

"Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met"

#21 69 Love Songs Vol. I , The Magnetic Fields, Merge, 1999

I have a confession: I kinda sorta have a like for musicals. There. I said it. I'd like to think I can blame this on my mother's habit of playing the soundtracks to Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music in the house when I was a kid. Or the fact that I was taken to performances of Man of La Mancha in Jr. High. Or the fact that we played the soundtrack to Les Miserables for our half-time music not one, but two different years when I was in high school marching band. (Now that I've revealed I like musicals and was in high school band, please don't leave me, Sarah.) So, you could say the cards were stacked against me. In my defense, I have never ever liked the visual part of musicals: the melodrama, mixed with moments of breaking out in song and dancing with multiple persons and/or animals, always embarrassed me. But there's no denying the power of the hooks and progressions utilized by the great musical writers - they've been successful because of their ability to bend people's ears, not because of dance numbers with peasants. Plus, the clever rhyming schemes and witty way conversations are often worked into the mix have always interested me.

Stephen Merritt is perhaps the best composer for a musical who doesn't do musicals (though that may change in the future) that I've ever heard. Not only can he write clever, exquisitely rhymed narratives into his pieces, he can do it in a prolific manner. Merritt's bands include The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes and, coming in at #21 with a bang, The Magnetic Fields. My first introduction to Merritt's songwriting came through that immortal vehicle for musical discovery that can only exist on magnetic tape: the mixtape. My friend Bowman had sent me a tape my junior year in college that introduced me to many incredible bands not available in the hills of Appalachia in a pre-internet world (the Promise Ring, Modest Mouse, and Cat Power to name a few). A song entitled "I Don't Believe You" on the tape struck me the first time I heard it - it was like a bizarre musical number, complete with weird synth to boot. And the lyrics were amazingly witty and well-timed: "Say you love quote unquote me/well stranger things have come to be/but let's agree to disagree/because I don't believe you."

With this introduction, I decided the next Magnetic Fields record that came out would belong to me. But how to get it? After graduation in May '00, Sarah and I headed out to California for a pre-grad school summer fling including an appearance at her oldest brother's wedding. We camped out in San Jose for a bit and, while driving around, we came across a massive Rasputin records. For me, it was like a dream come true: a warehouse-sized store dedicated totally and completely to music, and especially to indie rock (For those who care, meaning no one, this was also the place where I purchased my #26, Depeche Mode's Violater, for what it's worth). I had read in Alternative Press that The Magnetic Fields were releasing a massive concept trilogy of records all about love. It was to be called 69 Love Songs (wink nudge wink giggle nudge hiccup) and would actually consist of 69 complete songs all about, oh I don't know, cancer. Anyway, when I came across the three disc box set in the store, it wasn't a matter of whether or not to buy it, but more of a matter of how fast I could get out of the store, into the car, and begin listening to the records and devouring the massive booklet including commentary on every single song from an interview with Stephen Merritt by Daniel Handler (a man the world would soon come to know as Lemony Snickett). Over the rest of our trip, and the rest of the year, there wasn't ever a week that one of the discs wasn't being played. And, during this time, many of you reading can remember getting tracks from this epic trilogy on mixtapes from yours truly (that's how I, and Haley Joel Osment, pay it forward).

While Vol. II and III are solid, I kept coming back to Vol. I.* Every single song of its 23 tracks is not only listenable but engaging and witty (OK, maybe not "Punk Love," but you have to have at least one concept song on a concept record, right?). Musically, Merritt creates the best kind of multi-instrumentality - synths meet strings meet banjo meet accordion meet flute meet percussion meet piano in the best possible, and most importantly listenable, way. Plus, the addition of three different lead vocalists that appear besides Merritt stave off vocal boredom. Genre boredom is also averted with Merritt's successful utilization of the sounds of '50s drama ballads ("Sentimental Melody"), country jams ("A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off"), dance floor numbers ("Sweet Lovin' Man"), A Capella ("How Fucking Romantic") and, of course, the musical ("Nothing Matters When We're Dancing"). Lyrically, Merritt is masterful in his comedic and compelling genius (cf "A pretty girl is like a violent crime/If you do it wrong you could do time/but if you do it right it is sublime" from "A Pretty Girl is Like..."). The narratives that appear are both hilarious and original: "Absolutely Cuckoo" chronicles the confession of a neurotic lover driving away a potential mate before they can even get started, "Come Back from San Francisco" places a female vocalist pleading with her lover not to let pretty boys in discos distract him from his novel writing, "I Think I Need A New Heart" queries the true meanings behind a lover's sweet nothings, "The Book of Love" imagines a metaphysical tome from which springs all things love-related, "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" places the ugly owner of a convertible into the limelight with the ladies because of his car, and "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits" talks about, well, ahem, "doin' it." By the time the 56-minute record ends, you've crossed a gamut of genres, endured repeated plays on words, and found yourself laughing countless times. And you still have two more records to listen to. If you want.

* While I purchased the records as a set, they were not released that way but came out individually over the course of the fall and winter of '99/'00. Thus, I am not pulling a section from a whole, but rather focusing on one album that goes with two others. You can say it's hair-splitting, but I made this blog and by God I can take you off it.


Country Roads said...

Hey Brandon,
I was telling one of my friends about the blog and he was very interested. Wondering if we could get him in on this thing... His name is Brad Davidson and his email address is Is it too late to add another person?
Thanks, Jason

I am enjoying all the comments! There is about a thousand albums I need to buy.

Captain Ultra said...

your number 26 makes an appearance on up the road for me.

Big Cougar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah said...

the boy beside me in studio just ended a serious relationship with his girlfriend because she doesn't want to get married. he's been playing this album a lot. if you're going to sink into depression, you might as well do so with style.

Sean B said...

All right, blog fascist, but I'm going to put all 3 vols. together later on in mine.

Also, Stephen Merritt has done musicals, 3 of them in fact! He has an album called "Showtunes" (2006, i think) that collects songs from the 3. Listening to it, it's interesting to note that when we say that MF songs may as well be showtunes (and I tend to think this too), compared to the real stuff, they most definitely are not.

ATrain said...

W-A-S-H-I-N-G, T-O-N, baby, DC!