Do you believe in life after “Believe”? It’s easy to have affairs with pop songs, since mass culture pimps them so effectively. The demand for a top 40 song is often itself manufactured, or at least helped along by repetition, as with the omnipresent Cher vehicle. Heavy rotation in several markets can get a tune so firmly stuck in your mind that owning it becomes the only way to scratch the itch. But whirlwind affairs with number one hits fade fast, and when you hear them 10 years later, the nostalgia they produce is not usually for the feelings their lyrics describe, but for the time period when the song provided the background for everything you did. Even through your tears, as you hear the Muzak version blast into the dentist’s office, you may remember how much you despised that megahit. The song just followed you everywhere, so you had to take it home. It didn’t really belong to you. It must have been love, but it’s over now.
The songwriter who calculatedly conceives with profit in mind may have a few hits, but the best top 40 repeat offenders are people like Diane Warren, Lionel Richie, and Phil Collins, whose truly expressive platitudes just happen to sell millions. For them, sincerity and cliché go hand in hand. But if you’re anything like Stephin Merritt, the self-described megalomaniac whose musical auteurship is synonymous with the Magnetic Fields, among other bands, your sincerity and your clichés take separate vacations. To express the intense complexity of modern romance, you need songs that don’t water down or dismiss much of what makes falling in love worth the price of admission–folly, ardor, ambiguity, irony, anxiety, and risk. You need sentiments so appropriate to your state of affairs that they make you laugh or shudder. Only then can you include them on your mix tape. Maybe that’s why you can imagine nearly everything on the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs on someone’s cassette. Like a great romance, it’s consistently lovable even when stupid or frustrating, and its best moments are absolutely breathtaking.
Merritt began this masterwork thinking that he would write a revue of 100 ditties on the subject. But even if they were limited to two minutes each, he realized, the concert would run in excess of three hours. How like mad love affairs themselves, especially Merritt’s lonesome-cowboy conception of them, that the songwriter’s initial dreamy ambition should be forced into compromise by circumstance. Nevertheless, the pared-down collection still clocks in at 2.87 hours. If similar immoderation seemed vexing from the artist formerly known as Prince, the attempt is practically psychotic for an indie jester like Merritt. Even though the three discs are available separately, it’s hard to find method in the madness of this glut, since none is more expendable or less varied than the other two. But who cares? The best way to get this long long player into your library is to receive it as a gift.
Settling on a number like 69, with its sexual connotations–not to mention the love-triangle implied by three CDs–indicates the mixed messages and concessions between love and desire that Merritt has become known for raising to the level of high-quality low art. With exquisite disaffection, Merritt sang of romance as a thoroughfare on 1994’s The Charm of the Highway Strip. Traffic on the Merritt Parkway, however, rarely flowed in both directions. In his deep, depressive bass, reminiscent of Big Bird’s mysterious companion Snuffalupagus, he groaned warnings to lovers–“One of these days I’m gonna leave you in your sleep”; “Don’t hold me too tightly”; “Take a look in your photo book/I’m not there anymore.” In his songs, Merritt has always known himself well enough to send people away–all the more tragic for his paramours, who are allowed no say in the terms of their dismissal. True to form, 69 begins with a word of caution: “Don’t fall in love with me yet . . . . You might decide I’m a nut.” Merritt pumped air into the hissing tires of the freeway-of-love theme, however, by setting his chicken-fried lyricism to intricate, lush, yet desperately uncool synth-pop backgrounds. You see, he isn’t just a lonesome cowboy, he’s an openly gay, urban lonesome cowboy, the type that runs thick as thieves in his East Village milieu.
Merritt’s Hank Williams-sings-Depeche Mode aesthetic never quite gelled, though, even when the songs were as engaging as those on Highway Strip. The computerized fussiness tended to fight his striking but untamed voice for control of his one-man genre. Deciding to emphasize the songwriting for which he’d garnered praise, Merritt encouraged others to take the mic on his next few projects: Claudia Gonson on the dreadful Future Bible Heroes record, and semidemigods like Lou Barlow and Georgia Hubley on the 6ths’ Wasps’ Nests, the major-label breakout that didn’t happen. Curiously, few who interpreted Merritt’s work had particularly distinctive voices, and the Moogs proved more restless and déclassé than ever. What kept obscuring Stephin Merritt’s genius, even as it was lauded by so many luminary insiders? Was he destined for Jules Shear hell?
On 69, Merritt has considerably widened his romantic scope, but the simplicity of the arrangements suggests a better answer to those questions. Merritt wrote these vaudevillian serenades to be performed. Not just recorded in a cramped tenement bedroom by a nerd with a four-track, but played for an entire audience of nerds. Hardcore nerds. People who think Rufus Wainwright wasn’t enough like They Might Be Giants. Using little more than a mandolin, an accordion, a banjo, or sparely whipped-up analog computer tracks, Merritt zigzags through a history of popular song forms with incredible facility–country, technopop, dance hall (the English type, not the Jamaican), world music, some wonderful Irish ballads, a minuet. (He avoids r&b–mercifully, I suspect.) All this fare would seem scattershot were it not held together by its DIY cabaret execution. Yet it isn’t all fun and games. Seminovelty tracks like “The One You Really Love” and “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off” deftly parody Johnny Cash, but also show off how resonant and downright sexy Merritt’s voice can be now that he’s hitting those low notes dead on. In Dudley Klute and Shirley Simms, Merritt has found alternate singers whose piano bar voices can usually make up for their slickness with hokey showmanship.
Merritt’s wry humor and cynicism no longer have a stranglehold on him anymore, either; he can fill elegies like “Asleep and Dreaming” or Weill-ish sing-alongs like “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing” with such tenderness that only a replicant could listen without getting verklempt. Throwaways like “Punk Love” delightfully reinforce the magnitude of the task–by the law of averages, some of these tunes have to be bad. Better that their awfulness is intentional, the way it’s cute when your S.O. acts naughty. Lovers, however, frequently change their minds–CDs, frozen in time, are far more consistent. If people were as reliable as the Magnetic Fields’ magnum opus, we might not need so many love songs.
Magnetic Fields play the Knitting Factory September 9 and 10.