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."

Within his confines, though, Merritt thrives. The list of instruments used in the 69 songs fills an entire tiny-typed page (Kamaka Pineapple uke, National lap steel, Marxophone, sitar, zither, violin, musical saw, Roland TB303, Synclavier, Korg MS-10, Wurlitzer electric piano, pennywhistle, Paul Revere Jug, rain stick, conga, bongos, Chicken Shakers and about 50 others), and he squeezes these instruments into a pop lexicon that includes dub, show tunes, renaissance pop, disco, Afropop, wall-of-sound Spector pop, blues, country & western and pretty much every other style of music. His knowledge of American music is remarkable, and he's taught a college-level course called "The Art of Rock" ("I wanted to call it the "Science of Rock,' but they didn't want that").

69 Love Songs, though, sounds simply like the Magnetic Fields — airtight pop songs — and the collection contains a few dozen should-be-classics: "Grand Canyon" ("If I was the Grand Canyon/I'd echo everything you say/But I'm just me/I'm only me/and you used to love me that way"); "Asleep and Dreaming" ("I've seen you laugh at nothing at all/I've seen you sadly weeping/The sweetest thing I ever saw/was you asleep and dreaming").

Christ. You could fill the paper with his words. They rhyme. They're in meter. They're funny. They're clever. They're bitter. They make idiot critics gush.

And you'd think that they'd rule the airwaves. Suburban housewives don't need to know the sexual orientation of a songwriter (though Merritt's own publishing company, Gay and Loud Music, is a bit too gay and loud to muffle). But someone should be working these songs to the Backstreet Boys or in Nashville. Merritt has been described as a one-man Brill Building, and were he writing these songs in the early '60s, maybe he'd have a dozen hit songs under his belt by now. But that ain't the case, something that's frustrating to him: "I think," he says, "that the fact that I don't have a major publishing deal to be one of the most shocking aspects of my career."

So he works alone, occasionally employing the voices of other singers, male and female, to finesse his vision. Not all of the songs on 69 Love Songs succeed. But, hell, there are 69 of them, and Merritt seems to have deliberately tossed a few duds into the mix as throwaways ("Punk Rock Love" isn't punk and doesn't rock; "Experimental Love Song" is, well, dumb). But assessing the three CDs individually is pointless; depending on your mood, you'll favor one over another on any given day. As is the case with any Magnetic Fields release, you'll constantly discover songs that you've ignored, then wonder how you ever lived without them. Once you grab one and read through the lyrics and then hear how they intermingle with the melodies, there's a good chance you'll understand why idiot writers gush, and why the more hyperbolic of them are willing to state unequivocally that Stephin Merritt has written some of the best American love songs of the century. And will be writing the first best songs of the next one.

Best Things to Do In St. Louis

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

© 2016 Riverfront Times

Website powered by Foundation