A triple album box set, three hours long, containing 69 songs, covering almost as many genres - well, it has to be crap, hasn't it? Surely it must betray signs of Prince-like lack of quality control? Amazingly, it doesn't. The Magnetic Fields, masterminded by Stephin Merritt, the artist formerly known as Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths and the Gothic Archies, have produced the best album of 1999.
69 Love Songs does exactly what it says on the box. There are 69 songs, and they're all songs about love. But they're also about the love of songs. More specifically, American songs. There are references to Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Billie Holiday and those who toiled in the Brill Building.
Merritt had originally intended to release an album of 100 songs, but then settled for a more realistic 69, both for its sexual connotations, and its "typographical possibilities". He mocks himself in (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy: "I took a pen in my own hand and wrote you a hundred tunes. Now, I'm crazy for you, but not that crazy."
If you have never heard the Magnetic Fields, you may be wondering what this album sounds like. Merritt's morose bass voice is a bit Leonard Cohen, a bit Tom Waits. Doing Erasure. And country. And improvised jazz. And 18th Century Scots reels. And world music. And disco. And Broadway show tunes. And ABBA...
Merritt doesn't just mess around with genres, but with genders, too. On When My Boy Walks Down The Street, Merritt sings: "Amazing, he's a whole new form of life, blue eyes blazing, and he's going to be my wife." On the country ballad, Papa Was A Rodeo, Merritt sings to someone called Mike. At the end of the song, Mike sings and it turns out Mike's a woman: "Papa was a rodeo, mama was a rock'n'roll band, I could play guitar and rope a steer before I learned to stand. Home was anywhere with diesel gas, love was a trucker's hand, never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand."
Stephin Merritt is gay. By all accounts, he's a bit of a loner, doesn't suffer fools gladly, is a bit of an obnoxious twerp, a shy, intelligent, social misfit. I can relate, y'know?
He sings about love in all its many-splendoured forms: about being unloved, about looking for love, the first flush of love, falling head over heels in love, true love, and - at length - about the end of love: "Meaningless? You mean it's all been meaningless? Every whisper and caress? Yes yes yes, it was totally meaningless." Or, hilariously, in a duet that sounds like the couple in I've Got You Babe thirty years on: "Do I drive you up a wall? Do you dread every phone call? Can you not stand me at all?" "Yeah! Oh, yeah!"
He is not the first songwriter to wonder who wrote the book of love, but his book is a more realistic one: "The book of love is long and boring, no-one can lift the damn thing. It's full of charts and facts and figures, and instructions for dancing."
There are loads of instantly catchy ditties, but repeated listens continue to pay off. You'll be walking down the street and suddenly realise that for the last three minutes you've been singing to yourself a song about shooting an early 20th Century Swiss linguist to defend the honour of Motown's finest songwriters. Some songs are "merely transcendental" and others are "shadows of echoes of memories of songs."
And then there are the little oddities, rubbish really, but too constructed, too laboured-over, to be mere filler. The thrash trash of Punk Love, or Experimental Music Love which consists solely of the title repeated, echoed, phased and bounced, and then there's this one: "Wi' nae wee bairn ye'll me beget, untwinkle little ee. My ainly pang'll be regret, a maiden I will dee." Hmmm, yes...
Merritt's songs are often too calculated, too thought-out, but they so badly want to be loved, even if they pretend they don't. They confess all without telling you anything they don't want to. They are hugely admirable, bloody clever, but hard to actually like, to choose as something to spend your lunch hour with. Too clever for their own good. And all the better for it.
I've always loved those recommendations in some magazines and record shops. "If you liked Mariah Carey's album, you'll like this one by Whitney Houston". "If you liked REM's Automatic For The People, you'll like Semisonic". What would they say for this album? "If you like 69 Love Songs, you'll like" - what? "Nothing else"? "Everything else"? "A few very carefully chosen records which no-one else likes, and anyway, you're a total cult"?
I haven't the space to do justice to 69 Love Songs. I haven't mentioned the fact that there are four other vocalists apart from Merritt (Claudia Gonson, Shirley Simms, Dudley Klute and LD Beghtol). I haven't raved about the fabulous camp disco of Long Forgotten Fairytale. Or how No One Will Ever Love You is meant to sound like every track on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album all rolled into one. And succeeds. Or that it's available as three separate discs or in a box containing a 72-page booklet. Or how Merritt's next project leans towards European cabaret and features Marc Almond, Neil Hannon and Momus among others. Or how this album contributed towards my realising I had to break up with my boyfriend.
69 Love Songs is Merritt's most successful release yet. The entire first pressing sold out on the day of release. Laura Lee Davis recently made it her featured album on her GLR radio show. She played three tracks from it, and I thought to myself, "not those three tracks, they're hardly representative." But no three tracks could possibly convey the breadth of this project. This is an album which needs to be listened to in its entirety. And loved.