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 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."
While Merritt comes nowhere close to the feel-good, airheaded lyrics of his Swedish heroes on 69 Love Songs, he does try to offer something for everyone. "There's no allegiance except to love songs. It's not a rock album. It's not an indie-rock album. It's not electro-pop. I like the vast variety. I say smash genre."
On this album, Merritt smashes away. There's a punk song about love ("Punk Rock Love") that practically demands that you sport a green Mohawk while listening to it. There's a jazz song about love ("Love Is Like Jazz") that has about as much to do with jazz as Dobie Gillis does with the Beat movement. There's an Irish folk song about love ("Wi' An Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget") that's magically delicious. And so on. Whatever form he's working with, Merritt does what he does well with plain old pop: He reaches in and scoops out the best parts. As such, he manages to call up the essence of a particular style without becoming merely stylistic.
69 Love Songs once again finds Merritt teamed with Gonson, as well as three new singers who take on some of the vocal duties. It's a smart move: Though Merritt regards his own voice as okay, he recognizes that it's far too limited to handle the range and sheer volume of songs on the release. Dudley Klute, a singer whom Merritt met at his local watering hole, is a standout. Although Klute's vocal styling is not unlike Merritt's, the former has a greater ability to capture mood with broader affect and vocal strength. One track in particular, "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side," uses Klute to good effect. He brings the perfect lightness to lyrics that are not all that light. Lyrically, the song harks back to the New York big-musical era of the Forties and Fifties, but Merritt supports the song with a modern, electric grind. Later he recalls the era more specifically in "Busby Berkeley Dreams," a spare but gorgeous ballad.
Merritt demonstrates his instinct for singers who complement his own work by enlisting the talents of Shirley Simms, whose voice is eerily similar to that of another perfect-pop songbird, Kirsty MacColl. It's a comparison Merritt has heard a lot lately, and it's one of which he's frankly suspicious. "We happen to know the biggest Kirsty MacColl fan in America, and he never said anything about it." To be fair, Simms has a much more laid-back, easy presentation than MacColl.
Even when the 69 Love Songs veers into Tony Basil/Bay City Rollers territory on "Washington, D.C." Merritt makes it work as more than mere novelty with Gonson's vocal help. Elsewhere, the album wanders back to Charm of the Highway Strip-era pop-country songs. On "Papa Was a Rodeo" and "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off," Merritt doesn't simply turn to country-music cliches; rather, he implodes them. After offering every simile you've never thought of to describe a comely lass in "A Pretty Girl Is Like..." -- a violent crime, a minstrel show -- Merritt finally decides that "a pretty girl is like...a pretty girl."
Merritt's sense of humor comes through best on songs such as "Acoustic Guitar" ("Acoustic guitar, if you think I play hard/Well, you could have belonged to Steve Earle or Charo or Gwar"), the electro-funky "Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long" ("I don't know where I went wrong/You scare me out of my wits/When you do that Shitzu") and "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits" -- a title that says it all. But "Underwear" demonstrates that his deep voice can actually be rather sexy as it purrs, "A pretty girl in her underwear/If there's anything better in this world/Who cares/La mort, c'est la mort/Mais l'amour, cest l'amour."
While combining love, sex, death and comedy has long been the forte of Morrissey, Merritt says he sees himself akin to the singer only in that "we're both not afraid to use humor." But the fact that they both employ a sense of humor to wallow in and explore the dour side of life offers a definite parallel -- as does their smart pop sensibility. Just as the Smiths, Depeche Mode and a handful of other bands of the early and mid-Eighties expanded the definition of the pop song, so Merritt can be counted among a throng of performers currently doing the same thing. Like the Magnetic Fields, rising indie-pop acts such as Momus (who is rumored to be a vocalist on the forthcoming 6ths album), Divine Comedy and Belle & Sebastian toil beneath the surface of commercial radio and big labels. But Merritt is skeptical of any similarities. "I can't imagine seeing it as a scene," he scoffs. Regardless, all of the performers provide the best alternative to the late-Nineties fluff of MTV-ready boy bands, girl bands and Britney Spears, whose best asset is her back end. Merritt claims to have no opinion, however, on the current state of commercial pop music. "It has nothing to do with my life," he says.
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Fair enough; he's a busy man. A growing cult following has sprung up around him, spawning a recent tribute album, Verfumdungseffekt, which features eighteen Internet-based artists covering his work. Short pieces in Out and The Advocate have also helped raise the profile of the openly gay songwriter among the gay and lesbian community. Merritt writes from many different perspectives and doesn't shy away from a gay one, something closeted or semi-closeted gay artists tend to avoid by using non-gender-specific pronouns. Though he eschews the kind of ham-fisted political sentiments of some out gay artists, there's still something radical about lines like "He's a whole new form of life/Blue eyes blazing/And he's going to be my wife," from "When My Boy Walks Down the Street."
Despite the artistic success of 69 Love Songs, Merritt admits it wasn't an easy album to complete. He originally thought it would have 100 songs but then felt that was just too many. Even at 69, there were times he was exhausted, but he persevered. "It's like when you decide to walk home and it starts raining," he says. "You don't give up and take a cab at the last moment. You keep walking. You get wet, your dog gets pneumonia. It's like you decide to jump eighteen cars -- you don't decide in mid-air, 'No, I want to jump sixteen.'"
With the project completed, Merritt can honestly say he did it all for love.