Posts Tagged ‘Claudia Gonson’

Ranking Every Song on The Magnetic Fields' <i>69 Love Songs</i>

The Magnetic Fields’ three-disc album “69 Love Songs” is a staggering achievement, a cultural landmark, a monument to romantic, yet urbane misery. Calling it a concept album seems inadequate. At once theatrical and literary, it’s a dazzling kaleidoscope of pop and Americana, a pageant of queer (or at least sexually ambiguous) and not-that-queer heartbreak, with occasional flurries of happiness. From track to track the several voices on the album whip from tender sincerity to extreme camp, adding up to 69 mostly great songs that worship, mock and interrogate love by turns, released just before the turn of the millennium.

That said, not all of the “69 Love Songs” are of equal quality, but perhaps deliberately so. To borrow a line from “The Book of Love” on disc one, some if it is transcendental; some of it is just really dumb. Some are captivating love stories with melodies that worm their way into your heart some are maudlin little ditties, some are bad gags, some are booby trapped. Really, though, that’s part of the charm of the album when taken as a whole. It’s unnecessary, quixotic, excessive, relentless, sometimes grotesque, even occasionally genuinely romantic.

The album is an overwhelming text on its own and more still has been written about it, but an album like this demands a thorough inventory, the kind that can only be done one song at a time. The challenge, of course, is that this three-disc album contains a much higher percentage of great songs than most albums of more standard length.

Released in 1999, 69 Love Songs is a brilliant, sprawling, three-part record by The Magnetic Fields, the lo-fi indie collective formed in 1989 by Boston-born, New York-based songwriter Stephin Merritt with a revolving cast of male and female vocalists (plus author Lemony Snicket on accordion). Early albums included tributes to Phil Spector, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Cole Porter. Pop snobs loved the layers of reference: the songs were always about songs.

A caustic and cerebral character (so relentlessly condescending that I gave up interviewing him in 2008), Merritt originally conceived the band’s sixth release as a Sondheim-indebted theatrical revue for four drag queens. The subject, he says, is not love, but love songs. With all the cynical wit of a modern Dorothy Parker, he planned to pick apart all the cliches of the canon while showcasing his ability to mass produce catchy melodies like a vintage Brill Building jangler.

To keep things fresh across almost three hours of music, Merritt dressed his ditties in every genre going: folk, rock, country, indie, gospel, punk, jazz, synth-pop and little outbursts of daft experimentalism. The use of different singers, flipping gender and register, keeps you on your toes. Who’s playing what game now? Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying to you?

Merritt threw every sentimental trick in the book at this record: big swoops and swirls up and down the octave, tear-jerking minor chords, and an attic full of sepia-tinged pop-culture references. One song finds an abandoned spouse seeking refuge in dreams staged by the legendary Hollywood choreographer Busby Berkeley: “Whining and pining is wrong and so/ On and so forth, of course of course/ But no, you can’t have a divorce”. Another spurned lover seeks solace in his Billie Holiday records: “Some of us can only live in songs of love and trouble/ Some of us can only live in bubbles”. This pretty tune is offset by a suicidal mindset and a discordant piano.

Each of Merritt’s emotional sucker punches is delivered with one eyebrow raised at listeners who buy into his “fraudulent authenticity”. This means that anybody going through a traumatic experience can use the music to flush out all the messy feelings – or consider them from a strangely dispassionate distance. “The book of love has music in it/ In fact, that’s where music comes from/ Some of it is just transcendental/ Some of it is just really dumb”, he sings in a bone-dry baritone, over a guitar that sounds like he’s strumming it with a nail brush.

In the weeks directly after my partner left, I struggled to rock my one-year-old daughter to sleep while repeatedly herding my four-year-old son back into his bedroom. My tears would splash onto his Hungry Caterpillar duvet as I sang along with the romantic lullaby tune of “Come Back from San Francisco”, sung by Claudia Gonson in a rich, open alto. The part of me that joined Merritt in observing the feelings from afar had nothing but contempt for a woman who yearned for the return of a man who could do this to her.

Although almost all the widely cherished songs on 69 Love Songs are delivered like demos, few have been covered. Despite the catchy, FM-friendly melodies and delectable lyrics, they’re so perfect as they are that to flesh them out would be as crass as daubing Dulux over ancient Greek statues. The spaces in the production are reminiscent of the unanswered questions at the end of a good short story. Some days I find the countryfied electric guitar of “No One Will Ever Love You Honestly” gains truth as it echoes.

Merritt’s sepulchral tones on “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” made me hoot. Too busy fixing washing machines and meeting concerned teachers, I had certainly never been through a period during which I could “dress in black and read Camus/ Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth/ Like I was 17/ That would be a scream/ But I don’t want to get over you…”

This is a murder ballad, a Punch and Judy show, definitely not a love song, and therefore doesn’t belong on an album called 69 Love Songs.