Sunday, January 28, 2007

Yes yes yes it was profoundly meaningless

#10 The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge, 1999)

In the early days of this millennium you may have caught me calling this album/set a work of genius. Three years ago, it would have been in my top 3. It obviously no longer is, and this is why: about the time that the follow up to 69 Love Songs, i, came out, I read an interview with Stephen Merritt (the songwriter on display here) in which he laughed off the notion that his songs had any real element of sincerity to them. Now, such a statement is, on the face of it, spot on, as Merritt’s songs are populated by the most ridiculous collection of misfits, maudlin self-pitiers, and delusional obsessives. And I mean that it the most complimentary way – Merritt is, hands down, the most clever and witty lyricist active today. These songs are funny. But as good as a comedy record can be, comedy records never hold up beyond a handful of listens. Sure, these songs are funny – but in my mind, many of them are also incredibly moving (listen to “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” and tell me otherwise). So, upon reading Merritt’s interpretation of his own songs, I decided, hey, I’m not going to let him decide how I listen to this album. Death of the Author and the rest. Thus says Sean: 69 Love Songs is not a comedy record. However, I couldn’t get the nagging idea that these songs are indeed fundamentally ridiculous out of my head, and it has affected my opinion of 69 Love Songs. The way I see it, if these songs aren’t actual love songs, or if there isn’t at least a core of real emotion to be found somewhere in this collection, I don’t want to listen to it any more.

In case you were wondering, I still listen to it.

Now that I’ve gotten the negatives out of the way, it is now time to rave. Julia and I encountered this album when we lived in near penury in New Zealand (I’ve been required to tell you that Julia liked The Magnetic Fields first, and I, in fact foolishly mocked them before I became educated), and we had a very small record collection. In fact, an artificially reduced record collection – we got this right at the time when I had my entire record collection stolen from our house (while we were in the house, too!). So, we essentially lived and breathed Magnetic Fields for months, and we would trade observations about which song this week was the greatest pop song ever written. I remember poring over this album in exegetical detail, reading the companion booklet in real time with the recordings maybe a half-dozen times. (Do I need to mention that I was unemployed at the time, which -I guess- may have contributed to the above-mentioned poverty?) So, 69 Love Songs may be smirky and (please god no) ironic, but despite itself, I would probably still say that 69 Love Songs is the best and most important work of pop music in the past 20 years. (And as a totally nerdy aside, I wonder – and would like to pose this question to others here – if this album has directly contributed if not created the extremely pop-friendly climate in professional rock criticism. I realize that it might just as equally be a gimmicky footnote in pop history, even if I feel otherwise).


Big Cougar said...

I have always embraced the ridiculous in 69 - which is one of the reasons I adore it. I honestly have never taken the records too much at face value, despite the deep emotion of Merritt's croon. There seems to be an overall feel of witty playfulness throughout the triolgy and, really, you can imagine almost any one of the songs being the soundtrack to a skit on SNL. Even the collection itself has an over-the-top title. Of course, that said, there are quieter more profound moments, but they all seem to exist as the set-up for the punchline. But what a genius punchline.

Sean B said...

I suspect that you are right. I might be trying to invent a "69 Love Songs" that doesn't really exist - and besides, would I REALLY want to listen to something like this if it weren't so funny? I guess I like the idea of a futile gesture toward a never-realized romanticism. Either way, I still think it is top 10 material, and even if I considered it pure comedy, it would prob still be top 25.