Instructions for Dancing
246 · 14 October 99
The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs
It's happening again. I've been locked inside albums before, temporarily convinced that the outside world is the enemy, but usually the prison walls are Noh-play screens painted to suggest that the universe is much smaller than it is, perimeters that circumscribe possibility by eliminating most of it. I have surrendered to records that claimed to provide everything necessary, a capitulation as simultaneously courageous and self-negating as ascribing to a cult, but I've known, every time, that the more rigorously a system is defined, the more curious I'll eventually become about the truths it can't express. Not even in the hundredth repetition of Surfer Rosa or from the choirgirl hotel did I seriously think they rendered the rest of my musical existence obsolete or superfluous. I listen to learn, and individual records are finite, so the more they captivate me, the more inexorably they set me free, and only Hollywood believes that bravery and inertia are avatars of the same soul. This time, though, there is actually a twinge of fear. I know, intellectually, that three hours is exactly as bounded a period as forty-five minutes, but then I know how small this planet is on the cosmological scale, too, and it doesn't disabuse my eyes of the notion that the horizon is forever. Art is not a dialectic (or all art is not one dialectic, at any rate), so of course no one impulse can be its culmination, but that isn't how 69 Love Songs works. This box doesn't answer art, it recapitulates it. I'm closer to the center of this music with every step I try to take toward an edge.
I would have been more cautious, but it seemed so insane to expect danger. 69 Love Songs is a three-disc box set (the discs also sold separately, for which I can think of no better rationale than maybe, with the gift season looming, you love someone who is allergic to myrrh), quite literally described by its title. I know and like the Magnetic Fields already (surely the first prerequisite; Stephin Merritt can't expect people who don't know him to commit to a three-disc first-impression, can he?), but The Charm of the Highway Strip, the only old Magnetic Fields album I adore whole-heartedly, utilizes one style (a robot Bach playing country music on toy keyboards), has only one singer (Merritt himself), and lasts thirty-three minutes. Focus and brevity are two of its central virtues. Multiplying the running-time by six, the vocalist roster by five and the style palette by a hundred or so seemed as inane a strategy for engendering epiphany as trying to improve on the nectarine by growing one the size of Delaware. If I were choosing guides for a Dantesque tour of the Levels of Art, Stephin Merritt would be low on my list. Polymaths are poor emotional counsel. Cathedral architecture uses different skills than arming booby-trapped costume jewelry. There's a perverse conceptual brilliance in such a wildly impractical notion as an album that renders a titular allusion to simultaneous oral sex nominally innocent, however disingenuously, but a joke that takes three hours to tell demands a better punch line than tame double-entendre. And if the traditional rejoinder to double albums was "There's one really good record concealed in these two", then it's a wonder this set, which in vinyl days would have been a quadruple album, and which may thus be the longest album in the history of pop music, didn't implode from the gravity of self-evidence. If there isn't a third of these songs notably better than the rest, the only sensible explanation is that they're all terrible.
And yet here I am, listening to the entire box straight through for the whateverth time I've forgotten, wondering what topological subterfuge will be required to extricate me. My attempts to summarize what I think it is this album achieves read like acrostic clues, like I can't possibly mean them as single thoughts: Three minutes each of any style that can be played sober; the Yellow Pages for a quarantined city of derelict clowns; a West Side Story for the doomed courtship between anoraks and apartment radiators; every introvert's heroes sitting quietly in one junkstruck room; a shut-in's extrapolation of the Anthology of American Folk Music from catalog blurbs; proof that all cynicism is heartbreak under its make-up; an unlabeled cassette library of PixelVision sunsets; the picket line demanding that the Island of Lost Toys also admit metaphors; Leonard Cohen's eulogy for Dr. Seuss. I can feel myself forgetting how much I liked The Charm of the Highway Strip, revising history to make 69 Love Songs into the musical equivalent of William Goldman's The Princess Bride, a facile minor craftsman's unexpectedly-conceived masterwork, simultaneously individual and encyclopedic, inventive and comprehensive. Where these songs sound different, they instantiate contradictory insights; where they sound akin, I'm abruptly certain that apparent contradictions merely expose an incomplete mental model. By the second hour, if not earlier, the strain should show, like we're laboring to extract far too many variations from a premise without enough complexity or nuance to support them, but instead the songs seem dumbfoundingly effortless to me, like we asked Stephin to find the six dozen most beautiful people in the world and he just walked out into the street and started touching strangers on the arm, correct by virtue of irresistible affection and faith. This box could probably have had five discs, or eight, or twelve. I would stop listening, eventually, but only like I stop reading The Castle, or stop enumerating pi, not because there's no more experience left to have, but because you usually have to stop having an experience in order to start appreciating it. And because you need to breathe, and eat.
After a little silence in which to regroup, though, ways begin to dawn on me in which the crossings to 69 Love Songs from Get Lost, or Distant Plastic Trees, or the 6ths' Wasps' Nests and the Gothic Archies' The New Despair, might have been accomplished without recourse to miracle. Merritt's macabre, basso profundo voice has always been integral to his bands' appeals, to me, so much so that Future Bible Heroes' Memories of Love, on which he sings but did not write the music, seems like less of a tangent than The Wayward Bus, whose songs were written by Stephin but sung by Susan Anway. Wasps' Nests, on which he accompanies fourteen other singers, is barely a footnote in my subjective edition of his catalog. Of the sixty-nine songs here, however, Stephin does forty five himself, perennial accomplice and catalyst Claudia Gonson sings another seven in artless clarity, Shirley Simms does seven in voices that span the range between Tracey Thorn and Amy Rigby, and LD Beghtol's tenor and Dudley Klute's cultivated growl grace six each (there are a couple duets, in case you added those up and wondered). Hearing other singers as interludes, instead of substitutes for Stephin's own presence, has an entirely different effect on me, and as with Donnette Thayer's Game Theory songs, several of the other singers' tracks end up being among my favorite moments in this set, despite the fact that taken in isolation they would hardly be representative.
A sixty-nine-song collection ought to have plenty of filler, or at least lower levels of compositional ambition, if for no other reason than logistics. Indeed, most of these songs are built from only a few components each, and there's a noticeable general absence of intricate instrumental preambles or multi-stage song-structure. And if by "filler" we mean "songs that you won't personally like", the sheer profusion of styles virtually ensures that there will be several. Then again, even when I've listened to the set at home with my remote right beside my hand, I've yet to skip a track. The songs may be simple, but they're also varied and short, and the juxtaposition effects are more complex and intriguing, I think, than the relatively more complicated song-arrangements on some of Stephin's simpler albums. There are strings, pianos, guitars, ukuleles, harmonium, sitar, zither, autoharp, ocarina, whistle and a small museum of percussion scattered across these songs, in addition to the usual low-grade synthesizers and drum-machines, and even a couple of guitar-bass-drums anti-experiments (or songs that sound that way, however they were actually constructed). There are unalloyed folk songs, unadulterated synth-pop sprints, sound collages, country dirges, mock-reggae, aching piano ballads, a cappella, a Celtic war anthem, a fight-song for Washington DC and a shapeless beat-poet improvisation. There are several songs that might pass for Christmas music, a couple I can imagine as John Denver's, one that could easily be Paul Simon, one that's nearly the Upper Crust. A number of them sound a little like a more earnest They Might Be Giants, a few others like a less earnest Ian McNabb, one or two like a mellower Brian Dewan (who lent Stephin the autoharp). The track order was determined at random, and the set proceeds with a lurching, opulent episodicity, as a result, like a lavishly-staged epic musical, the other singers wandering in and out as recurring characters in a convoluted and never-explicated plot. And the lyrics, which the premise set up to be a glossary of pop-song clichés, are often even more unnerving than the music, as eerily precise rhyme schemes and glibly telegraphed patterns repeatedly disgorge shards of resonant romantic empathy.
And maybe I'll escape this album's sphere, after all, the way I've escaped everything before it. I have abundant incentive. Tori Amos' to venus and back is waiting for my undivided attention, and my copy of Big Country's Driving to Damascus, their first new album in four years, arrvied today and I haven't even played it yet. It's hard to imagine I will resist for long. Tonight, though, those two and a hundred other records will wait. For a little while longer, I am going to savor my conviction that 69 Love Songs is the history of the world rendered as a coming-of-age novel, not as a pastiche of genres but as Merritt's idiosyncratic reconciliation of every warring urge he's ever felt, whether for himself or on our behalf. No doubt there are scores of idioms unrepresented, but if Stephin is aware of them, he's careful not to betray his doubts. For hours on end, as these songs chase each other through my player, the track indexes tick over like arrhythmia, like each new song will be the one the survey can't encompass without disintegrating, but somehow it manages to hold together, and I entertain the fantasy that it is this album, not all that COBOL re-engineering, without which our entrance into the new millennium would have been catastrophic. For the twenty-first century to represent a new chance, the twentieth has to be bounded, has to be, in some way, resolved. To move forward, we have to know where we've been. As long as I can fight off the return of banal, rational perspective, a few days or a few minutes more, I'm going to treat 69 Love Songs as the compact proxy for all of humanity's cultural progress to date, for the tensions between personality and potential, between understanding and hope, between conditioning and will. I can't promise it will move you the same way, but did you have something else in mind that would? You could wait, of course, and see if I turn out to be right or wrong. Maybe this box is a milestone in popular music, or maybe it's only an incremental advance, or maybe it's an obscure and pointless indulgence. You could just buy one of these discs, and pay no attention to my insistence that listening to a third of this set is like going to Mount Rushmore and only looking at one of the presidents. Or you could bide your time for seven days and see if next week I decide that the nature of humanity is immanent in something shorter and cheaper. Make your choices. Here is a box of what we could be. I believe this is the treasure chest we all carry inside us, filled with the bizarre secret that to be anything you want, all you really have to do is accept that becoming something alters it as much as it alters you. Our illusory powerlessness is an excuse, a fiction we sustain to avoid falling in love with every note the air transports, because we're too afraid of what might else might wander into an open heart, too afraid that loving too many notes would weaken us. But this fear is absurd, if not backwards. Your heart is strong, it's reality that's fragile. Whatever you say, and believe, will constitute the history of the world told in your voice, and the composite of all the stories we tell will be the history we share. If our history doesn't turn out to be glorious, and we don't turn out to be its heroes, we have no narrator's imagination to fault but our own.