LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE

The attractions of Magnetic Fields' three-CD 69 Love Songs

As if you ever needed to hear another love song, let alone 69 of them.

As if every angle hasn't already been covered, from the infatuation to the ruination, from the bliss to the kiss to the near-miss, from the seduction to the abduction to the destruction, from the joy to the, uh, hate.

Wait. That didn't rhyme. And everybody knows the perfect love song has to rhyme. And it has to have a melody and a hook, and it helps to toss in a clever pun or metaphor as its heart. It has to somehow reinvent said heart, and it has to do it without lapsing into cliché, and if it's gonna lapse into cliché, well, then, the singer better damn well be a looker, with sparkly teeth and a solid, perky body and that certain oh-so-make-lovable look. And if the singer's a looker, well, then, he or she better not be a, uh, homosexual, because then, well, you're talking about man-on-man, or woman-on-woman, love, and, well, thanks, but that's not the kind of love that Joe and Judy Wal-Mart want to hear about in their songs.

So when the quite obviously male Stephin Merritt sings on his most recent 69 Love Songs (Merge), a triple-CD collection of, yes, 69 new love songs, "Grand pianos crash together/when my boy walks down the street/there are whole new kinds of weather/when he walks with his new beat," well, that ain't gonna fly on the radio, even though it's one of about 50 brilliantly constructed love songs in the collection. And alas, if you try swapping genders in an effort to cheat the song's intent, it will backfire later, when Merritt rhymes "He's a whole new form of life" with "And he's going to be my wife."

Unless you're one of the handful of Magnetic Fields obsessives out there, you've never heard of Stephin Merritt, and you've never heard any of his songs. You don't know that he's the most inspired and original songwriter working in the pure-pop world right now, nor have you been privy to the brilliance of his best songs: "Two Lovers in Search of a Country Song," "All the Umbrellas In London," "Candy" (featuring the genius refrain "And I know you'll find a better man/they're all too easy to find/and I'll just go away somewhere/and slowly lose my mind") — jeez, the list goes on and on. Over the course of four albums (69 Love Songs being Nos. 5, 6 and 7), Merritt, who's based in New York City, has written songs, mainly about love or lack thereof, that are by turns fatalistic and hopeful, desperate and pathetic, obsessive and damned crazy.

Stephin Merritt is a grump, though he valiantly tries to bury his cantankerousness when being interviewed. He possesses a voice that at times is a nearly subharmonic rumble, and he speaks slowly and deliberately. When a question is asked, there's often an extended pause before he answers. If it's not a question he likes, he'll drop a "no" on the floor, and if a comment flummoxes him, he'll simply let an "oh" die in the air. The thought of reiterating information seems to be a task, and when asked about the origins of the 69 Love Songs project, he sighs and recites the origins for the umpteenth time today: "In the first five minutes of my thinking about it, I thought I'd do a revue as a way of getting into musical theater. I thought of a hundred love songs. And then I calculated the time that that would entail — the stage time — and it was pretty excessive. So I brought the number down to 69. And then I thought I'd have to record it for the singers, so they could learn it, and I thought that since I'm going to have to record it, I may as well make an album."

The album — actually a trio of albums sold both individually and as a boxed set — sets the same musical parameters as all of the Magnetic Fields projects (The Wayward Bus, Distant Plastic Trees, The Charm of the Highway Strip and Get Lost): a deep devotion to electro-pop of the '80s, to solid structure, and to love. Merritt, who records in a home studio, seems to work with long-obsolete electronic equipment, and the synthetic rhythms and production style are defiantly dated. Though his music contains as many organic old-timey instruments as it does synthesizers and computer sounds, when you hear it you'll think of Human League or New Order.

Merritt is also one of the most self-assured people you're ever likely to meet, especially when he's discussing history and trends in music. ("There is no new electronic music. I don't see any developments in electronic music since about 1986.") When talking about early synthetic pop, he might as well be describing his own music. "Electro-pop was entirely based on the fact that early sequencers could only play a few notes over and over again, and, fortunately, that was a great way of confining the artist so that repetition was the main thing. And everything had to be repetitive, so it had to be something that was worth repeating. Great pop happened to have the same needs, so the early days of electro-pop were brought on by the wonderful primitiveness of the sequencers. As soon as we lost that — we briefly got it back with sampling, where you repeated over and over again, but now samplers don't have that problem anymore, either. You can change the pitch of a sample without changing the speed of the sample — unfortunately."

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