Oh, L'Amour

Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt is loving every minute of a new three-disc set.

If there's any doubt that something strange and terrible has happened to the good, old-fashioned love song, consider this fact: Barbra Streisand, who once sang that love was as "soft as an easy chair," just released an entire album of love songs inspired by hubby James Brolin. If the album is a hit -- and it will be -- it will officially confirm that we as a nation have finally confused feeling "in the mood" with feeling "kind of icky."

But wait -- the love song may have recently found an unlikely savior. Songwriter Stephin Merritt's primary and recurring project, the Magnetic Fields, has just released 69 Love Songs, and the three-CD set lives up to its name. Like similarly titled compilations released in recent years by the K-tel label, 69 Love Songs offers track after track of pure l-u-v; the twist is found in the album's creator. Merritt is better known for his sugary take on the dreary side of love (and everything else) than for feel-good, kissy-face love songs. So it's a bit of a jolt to find him embracing the tradition with such fervor. Has he been infected by his own personal James Brolin? Don't count on it.

"It's a way to get attention, to impress people -- a publicity stunt," Merritt deadpans during a phone call from Chicago, his current stop on a short tour to support the album.

He's just a love machine: Stephin Merritt is the mastermind behind The Magnetic Fields.
He's just a love machine: Stephin Merritt is the mastermind behind The Magnetic Fields.

He may be joking; notoriously publicity-reticent, Merritt's flat, mumbled conversational affect and frequent pregnant pauses make him especially hard to read during a telephone interview. Stunt or no, though, the release is getting plenty of attention. Rock journalists have recognized it as Merritt's magnum opus; Spin gave it a perfect score in a recent review. But good notices are nothing new to the pop composer. Since his recording career began in the early Nineties, he has been applauded for his ability to marry irresistible hooks and intelligent lyrical content within a traditionally tight pop structure. The combination was used to good effect on the Fields' first release in 1990, the electro-pop-influenced Distant Plastic Trees. The band followed soon after with The Wayward Bus, redirecting the synth sounds in more of a Sixties-pop direction. Traditional instruments such as keyboards, bass and cello also found their way into the work. Charm of the Highway Strip, which followed in 1994, is a collection of highway songs that wove country-music sensibilities and pop hooks, with a style far from the reach of Garth Brooks.

Though 69 Love Songs is the first Magnetic Fields release in three years, Merritt has kept himself busy in the interim. In 1996 he released an album under the guise of the 6ths that offered an all-star lineup of indie-pop heroes, including Barbara Manning, Sebadoh's Lou Barlow and Superchunk's Mac McCaughan on singing duty; Merritt successfully juxtaposed his bubblegum pop against their purposefully low-fi, too-cool vocals. Two years later Merritt went for a more unapologetic sugar-and-synth pop sound with another project, the Future Bible Heroes. This time he handled vocal duties along with longtime Magnetic Fields singer/ percussionist Claudia Gonson, who is also his manager. Synth-meister Chris Ewen, from the short-lived Eighties outfit Figures on a Beach, teamed up with Merritt as co-composer. Gonson's airy and somewhat naive vocal tracks proved a good counterpoint to Merritt's baritone, not to mention his mopey lyrics. It takes a soft touch to deliver lines like "You know why the lemmings fly from high terrain/You know why most flowers don't bloom/You know why sad children stay out in the rain" without causing listeners to slit their wrists, but Merritt's misery is wrapped in enough humor to make them palatable. In addition to the 6ths and Future Bible Heroes, he's also had time to release an EP under the moniker the Gothic Archies, a syrupy take on goth-rock motifs.

The new release endeavors to accumulate all of the various genres sampled by Merritt in prior dabblings, with a few new ones thrown into the mix. It's a sweeping collection of musical styles, touching on blues, musical theater, synth-pop and nearly everything in between. Yet he's not one to suffer lightly imprecise language regarding his music. Despite its grand, over-the-top presentation, he's reluctant to call 69 Love Songs a concept album. "Charm of the Highway Strip was a concept album. This is a only a concept album in that there are 69 songs." And the fact that they're all love songs? "That's a theme," he snips.

Just don't expect any of the 69 songs here to be the theme of any high school homecoming dances this fall. While notions of fluttering hearts and red roses turn up throughout the work, just as they might in traditional love songs, almost all of Merritt's efforts here deal with the dark side of love: The depression. The Prozac. The restraining orders. They are love songs for a modern era, reflected through the musical sounds of the century. One practically needs a Ph.D. in music history to keep pace with the influences channeled on this album.

Merritt's own understanding of pop music is indeed erudite. Whereas others are happy to use broad categories to define a particular style of music, Merritt's pop cosmology is a very clear, ordered one. Still, he's willing to do his part to mix things up. "Where I come from, people had to choose between the Smiths and Depeche Mode," says Merritt. "I don't think people should have to choose." In a perfect world, he says, Depeche Mode would have fired their lyricist and hired Morrissey instead. The incongruity makes sense from a man whose favorite group is ABBA and who cites the group's skill at "tying emotion with extreme mathematical purity."

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