69 Love Songs is part of a very exclusive group: triple albums that are actually good. (The only other one that comes to mind at the moment is George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, which was full of all the songs he was never allowed to put on Beatles albums.) Released in 1999, it quickly became a cult hit, not least because Neil Gaiman cited it as one of his inspirations while writing American Gods.
The Magnetic Fields is the performance name of multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt, although he usually works in collaboration with others. Merritt plays an unholy number of instruments, including cello, piano, guitar, mandolin, autoharp, and the Moog synthesizer (for a complete list of the instruments he uses on 69, look here). As a songwriter, he deals in lyrics that are by turns tongue-in-cheek and devastatingly honest; he’s also one of the only songwriters working today who writes pop songs from an openly gay point of view (although Merritt is gay, not all his songs are).
The 69 songs on the album all deal with love in some way, and it’s not always happy. It is, however, always beautiful. Obviously, we can’t trundle through all of them, so here is a selection of my favorites (in the order they appear on the three discs of the album).
“The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side”
The squishy splish-splash of the instrumentation, combined with the four held vocal notes at the end (guest vocalist Dudley Klute), never fails to make me smile. It’s only on the second listen that you realize what a sad song it really is.
“Love Is Like Jazz”
A brilliant free-form piece that manages to make fun of love, jazz, and everything else, while still conveying deep affection for them.
“My Only Friend”
A gorgeous tribute to Billie Holiday. Merritt’s fingers run rampant up and down the piano keys as his voice (which is incredible and very deep) anchors the melody firmly in the lower registers.
“Epitaph For My Heart”
Probably my favorite of all. The beginning, which sets the words from an instruction manual to three-part harmony, is a marvellous juxtaposition of the sublime with the ridiculous.
“The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure”
De Saussure was a Swiss linguist who popularized the idea of language as a social collaboration; he was also instrumental in the development of semiotics. The song is written from the point of view of his murderer (not a historical event; Saussure died naturally at the age of 56). The line “you can’t use a bulldozer/ to study orchids” is one of my favorites, and I love the metallic rasp of the guitar.
“Queen Of The Savages”
Silly, boppy, fun, all set to ukelele and wire brush drums. The first song I heard off this album, at a friend’s house, was the song that sent me in search of the whole thing.
Readers, do you have more favorites to post? Add ’em in the comments section!