Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (1999)

Stephin Merritt -- singer-songwriter, keyboard player, so-low-it's-spooky-baritone, cynical yet romantic poet -- has had a number of great albums over the past few decades, both with his primary outfit (The Magnetic Fields) and various side gigs (The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths).  But nothing compares to the monster that is 69 Love Songs, a 3-disc box set, 23 songs per disc, hence the double entendre title.  And as also indicated by the title, each song touches on love -- heartbreaking love songs, romantic love songs, crush songs, break-up songs, songs of withering disdain.  Straight love songs, gay love songs, gender-bending sexually ambiguous love songs; odes not to just present and former and never lovers, but to places and things.  It's all in there somewhere.

And while most hew to Magnetic Fields' typical post-modern new-wave synth-based pop stylings, there are all sorts of variations, from stripped down ballads to faux country to quirky experimental electronic music.  Merritt sings the majority of the songs, but these are broken up somewhat by the sweeter vocals of Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms.

Merritt's lyrics are at their peak here, alternatingly chillingly dark and hysterically funny, sometimes so literate you need to keep Google handy, but invariably genius.  Too many great numbers here, but just to cherry-pick a few, you've got the jerky, bouncy new wave dance pop of "Long Forgotten Fairytale"; the lilting acoustic guitars of "Come Back From San Francisco" and "Acoustic Guitar"; the unfuckingbelievably heartbreaking divorce song "Busby Berkeley Dreams"; the drunken aftermath of "The Night You Can't Forget"; the cheerleader chants bookending the love letter to "Washington DC."

The best of them all may be the bubbly bass-driven "Death of Ferdinand de Saussure," tangentially about a Swiss linguist (yes, had to look that up), which includes the stunningly insane rhyme:

   "I'm just a great composer, and not a violent man
   But I lost my composure and I shot Ferdinand
   Crying 'it's well and kosher to say you don't understand
   But this is for Holland-Dozier-Holland.'"

Like, who writes like that?  (Stephin Merritt.  Only Stephin Merritt writes like that.)  I'm also a sucker for the gay-truckers-in-love country anthem "Papa Was A Rodeo" (with the impossibly perfect country music line "never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand"), which is clever and odd yet ultimately sweetly earnest.  And of course the synth-dance bop of "I Don't Want To Get Over You" ("I could dress in black and read Camus, smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth, like I was 17, that would be a scream but I don't want to get over you").

Of course, at 69 songs, not everything works, and not many people have time to listen to a 3-cd box set in one sitting, so I've found this is best enjoyed by paring it down to one simply extraordinary single-cd album; yours may look different, but my 23 Love Songs playlist is below.

Here's a fan video for "Papa Was A Rodeo":
And how about a little claymation video for "Death of Ferdinand De Saussure"?

...and maybe Merritt with a slow, solo piano take on "I Don't Want To Get Over You":
Here's my abridged 23 Love Songs: