Too many indie-rock bands these days try to create the perfect concept album, often with underwhelming results. Based on this assumption, the indie-pop troupe Magnetic Fields’s 1999 release 69 Love Songs should have been a gigantic flop – complete with a tackily ironic title. The three-volume attempt at conceptual perfection is as literal as its title suggests. Over the course of three discs, the album addresses any and every aspect of l’amour. Despite the ambitious nature of their endeavor, Magnetic Fields triumphantly deliver what is arguably the best conceptual studio box set of the 1990s. Over the course of 69 varied and diverse love songs, the band develops a mass of tracks that explore the heart’s innermost struggles.

Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt has been called one of the most depressed men in rock, and a cynical listen to 69 Love Songs confirms this proclamation. This shouldn’t be a deterrent – Merritt’s music is far removed from the commercialized emo-rockers who wear their hearts on their sleeves. Rather than shy away from overly embellished references to the album’s subject matter, the lyrics on 69 Love Songs are often abrasively sarcastic, establishing the record’s emotional backbone. His music is shockingly self-deprecating at times, but these moments add humanity to his folksy strings and synth-driven beats.

On “I Don’t Want To Get Over You,” Merritt allows his poetically simple verses to drive the song. Despite its cutting sarcasm, the ode to Prozac and meaningless one-night stands is one of the most painfully honest cuts from the collection. In an oft-cited verse, Merritt laments, “I can make a career of being blue / I can dress in black and read Camus / Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth / Like I was seventeen, that would be a scream / But I don’t want to get over you.” People who’ve ever had their hearts ripped from their chests can relate to Merritt’s direct hopelessness.

The album’s remaining 67 songs are an English major’s dream, complete with symbolic metaphors and unpretentious word play. Merritt, who’s openly gay, often plays with gender roles in the lyrics of his songs. This is especially pronounced on “Underwear,” in which Merritt switches between calling his subject a “pretty girl” and a “pretty boy.” The word play is very nuanced and it takes a few repeated listens to catch the subtle switch-off. A similar mix-up can be heard on “When My Boy Walks Down The Street,” in which a male vocalist delicately declares “He’s going to be my wife.” These subtle switches add depth to the album, allowing the listener to interpret the lyrics in whatever way suits his own life.

I could continue for another 5,000 words, pointing every bit of lyrical genius within 69 Love Songs. But that would take away from the sheer joy to be found through repeated listens. These packed bits of artful lyrical representation guarantee that the record will never become a bore. Nonetheless, sarcasm and wit can only take an album so far. 69 Love Songs would not be the masterpiece that it is without its widespread variation and experimentation.

Hiding under the wide label of indie pop, Magnetic Fields explore an eclectic grouping of genres, directed by Merritt’s heavily distinguished bass vocals. The album alternates between quirky yet poppy tunes (“Long-Forgotten Fairytale”), accordion-driven cuts (“Zebra”), folksy lullabies (“The One You Really Love”), synthesizer-heavy touchstones (“I Can’t Touch You Anymore”), uncontrolled brassy beats (“Love Is Like Jazz”) and impassioned ballads about long-distance romance (“Washington D.C.”). The opener, “Absolutely Cuckoo,” is mixtape paradise. Concise and to the point, the lo-fi song delivers rapid guitar strums over warped distortion as Merritt quickly counts all the reasons why his new lover should leave him before it’s too late. Even the 30-second cuts of album filler are packed with intelligent sarcasm. On the track “Roses” – which is barely half a minute long – Merritt orders his listeners to “buy more stock in roses,” an obvious reference to the rampant commercialization of romance.

Stephin Merritt certainly isn’t the first lyricist to highlight romance’s underbelly. But that shouldn’t diminish his own foray into the overused theme. Rarely has a group undertaken such an ambitious project and met – and exceeded – expectations like he did. On 69 Love Songs, Merritt and company manage to reduce all of love’s complexities and inadequacies into a triple-disc volume while greatly expanding their own musical horizons.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.