I dont know if there is a more roundabout (yet beautiful) way to tell someone you love them than there is in the song Asleep and Dreaming. Love triumphs over the physical attributes of ones person? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Of all the lyrics of all the songs Ive heard in the past few years, this particular verse has stuck with me the most.
Well you may not be beautiful
but it’s not for me to judge
I don’t know if you’re beautiful
because I love you too much.
The song is one of 69 love songs located within The Magnetic Fields…wait for it…69 Love Songs.
Stephen Merritt is the principal writer and musician in The Magnetic Fields. He is to this band what Trent Reznor is to Nine Inch Nails. Merritt is a man who likes his musicals, and it was hearing a Stephen Sondheim composition at a bar that helped influence him to begin working on this “instant” indie classic. He intended for his new project to be musical-inspired, and he thought he would write 100 songs for the record (the enormous amount of songs was influenced by the book 114 Songs by Charles Ives). Merritt wrote much more than that, but at the end of the day he managed to whittle it down to a scant 69.
The best part about Merritts 1999 triple-LP is that its so diverse. With the exception of rap, every genre is covered with success. What started out as a songbook based on the Broadway sound morphed into this highly varied, ambitious album. On this ambition alone Merritt is to be commended, but the content that lies within is what maintains this albums relevancy.
To cover the entire album song-by-song would cause this site to crash, and I dont want to be the cause for any technical issues, so Ill just take up enough space to mention some of my favorite tracks. The opening piece of Vol. 1 (disc 1) is a song that wouldnt have been out of place on the Juno soundtrack, Absolutely Cuckoo. Its the beginning of the dating process in song. The character is worried that the object of his/her affection will leave once they get to know them (True I’m in love with you but/you might decide I’m a nut). The lyrics are sung in breathless succession, as if the character is struggling to keep pace with the guitar work in the song.
Ive described the singer of this song not as Merritt, but as a character. In addition to the band leader, there are vocals performed throughout the album by women (Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms) and other men (LD Beghtol and Dudley Klute). Certain songs vary in perception, girls sing to girls from a male point-of-view, men to men from a girls point-of-view, men to men, men to women, etc. Ultimately, the hetero and homosexual bases are covered, but the way they are conveyed helps Merritt stay true to himself while creating an album filled with songs that anyone can relate to.
Other great songs in Vol. 1 include the devastating piano ballad I Dont Believe in the Sun (Since you went away/it’s nighttime all day/and it’s usually raining too), the banjo-stylings of All My Little Words (You said you were in love with me/Both of us know that that’s impossible), the sarcastic but relatable I Dont Want to Get Over You (I could make a career of being blue/I could dress in black and read Camus), and the ballad Come Back from San Francisco (Come back from San Francisco and kiss me; I’ve quit smoking/I miss doing the wild thing with you).
Vol. 2 contains the brutal truths of No One Will Ever Love You (When things go wrong/I sing along/It is the nature of the business/But you’re not here/to make my sad songs more sincere), religion included in relationships Kiss Me Like You Mean It (He is my lord, He is my savior/and He rewards my good behavior), the aforementioned Asleep and Dreaming, and the sure-to-be-sampled-by-Kanye closer I Shatter (You make it rain/Too bleak, too stark/Should night not fall you make things dark).
The final disc, Vol. 3, contains the most obvious reference to Broadway in Busby Berkeley Dreams, the gentle Acoustic Guitar (You understand where she’s coming from/Which I obviously don’t, or she wouldn’t be gone), and the Morrissey-esque lyricism in Yeah! Oh, Yeah! (What a dark and dreary life/Are you reaching for a knife?/Could you really kill your wife?/Yeah! Oh, yeah!). With an album containing 69 songs, not all can be winners, but the excellence within the songs mentioned throughout this article and many others compensate for that.
Although you should listen to 69 Love Songs as one complete piece, each volume is sold separately. If you are strapped for cash, I would select Volume One, but you really should be patient, save up, and purchase the entire box set.
Love songs can be uplifting, depressing, hopeful, or pessimistic. There are no limits to songs about love, when the right person is writing them. Ill conclude with a quote that Stephen Merritt gave to the Washington Post about the classic 69 Love Songs:
I like the fact that 69 Love Songs insists that there is a genre called ‘love songs’ that has nothing to do with instrumentation, nothing to do with conventions, nothing really to do with lyrics or melodies. The only thing that holds this collection together is something extra-musical…which is love.”