Anna Minard, our former city hall reporter, claims to "know nothing about music." For this column, we force her to listen to all the records that music nerds consider important.
69 Love Songs
This extra-special double-wide edition of Never Heard of 'Em is brought to you by Stranger music editor Emily Nokes and Stranger editor in chief Christopher Frizzelle dancing around the office together laughing and singing as much of "Absolutely Cuckoo" as they could get through, right into each other's faces. "Don't fall in love with me yet/We've only recently met/Sure, I'm in love with you but/You might decide I'm a nut..." etc. In your mind, you should add ukulele, but in real life, it was a cappella.
That moment marks the second Ultimate Serenade™ this column has brought me during my tenure as a professional music idiot. The first, which I will also cherish for all my years, is when Charles Mudede burst into an impromptu full-throated Kate Bush medley in my office. It was transcendent.
Anyway, 69 Love Songs is the kind of album that sends people into fits of adoration and sing-alongs. I was pretty psyched to fall into its full thrall. I dove into a canyon of the Magnetic Fields and hoped for awe. I experienced varied levels of awe. Some moments made me press rewind again and again, rapidly writing a new index card for my brain's very limited file cabinet of really special things ("The Book of Love," "Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin"). But by the end of all three hours, I became ready to propose a name change for this album, perhaps to 69 Songs About What People Think Is Love but Is in Fact Obsession or 69 Songs in Which People Need to Learn About Boundaries.
I fully admit that if you settle in for an album promising three full hours of love songs, you should leave room for the part of love that sucks, which is losing it. But is the point of this album that basically none of these are love songs? (Possibly yes.) These are songs about needing people, which is not the same as love. And these are songs about being mad/sad/truly depressed/bargaining/going through other stages of grief because someone left you, which is also not love. And some songs about feeling lucky because someone wants to hang out with you (not love). And wanting to touch people's best bits (≠ love).
That said, tons of 69 Love Songs is incredible. Stephin Merritt's voice tickles a part of your deep ear that's the same part that whisper fetishists love. You know about this phenomenon, the people who get tingly listening to people whisper? There's a whole online community of people making and listening to videos of whispering voices, that low hush and wet flicker of a stranger's mouth. Merritt's voice does that, makes your throat feel empathically strange and your scalp get whooshy, like he's licking the inside of your capillaries.
Fun 69 Love Songs experience: when the words don't match the music at all, and you start singing ridiculously upbeat sing-songy lines about needing a new heart ("hea-aaa-aa-aaart [plincka-plincka tambourine]") or about jumping in a lake, and you totally forget you're singing about a broken person. Also: the times when the tone shifts hard from one song to another, from slow quiet to a deep staticky ear-fucking electronic beat, from near–Christmas carols to peppy dance music.
The variation of song and tone and the way they change singers and styles makes listening to everything all in a row kind of like Christmas, like opening dozens of small strangely wrapped gifts. You don't know what you're going to get each time, and some of it's dumb and some of it you will remember forever. "Papa Was a Rodeo" is a treasure. Same with the simple beat on "I Can't Touch You Anymore." "Acoustic Guitar" is sad because it just goes to show that these people can't even have a nice relationship with an inanimate object for the length of a whole song; it devolves into pleading and threatening the poor guitar in less than three minutes.
The rhymes and meter stay spectacular through the whole escapade. "Reno Dakota" is a marvel of "iota" and "quota" and calling a dude a whore. Whole songs are poems. There are a million references and wheelbarrows full of similes, often extended—a pretty girl is like a violent crime, love is like jazz. The best simile song comes late: "Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin," which makes all of my skin go funny. A small heartbeat of fuzzy background music steps softly in, and then all this truth happens. From the beginning, "It makes you blind/It does you in," it's clear that this comparison has existed for all time just waiting for Stephin Merritt to arrive and point it out for two minutes. "It's very small and made of glass/And grossly over-advertised." "It costs a lot more than it's worth/And yet there is no substitute." "You just get out what they put in/And they never put in enough." And best of all, the end: "Love is like a bottle of gin/But a bottle of gin is not like love." Rewind, rewind, rewind.
In the blackness between songs, I can hear my heartbeat pounding in the headphones.
The best way to listen to this (that I've tested) is to lie quietly in the dark, pressed up against someone warm and great who has already fallen asleep and is snoring and sleep-murmuring into the night. Go up in the atmosphere with "The Book of Love" (which, just like "Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin," makes me cry).
The worst way to listen to this (I tested this, too) is after someone you know dies, when all these angsty New York poetry feelings seem like a bloated exercise in loving your own pain so much that you can't bother to even be nice to people or try hard. And a nice, small-town, lifelong romance seems more beautiful and worthwhile than a million empty, erudite literary references.
I give this an "open your presents" out of 10.