“Come back from San Francisco and kiss me I’ve quit smoking
I miss doing the wild thing with you.”
The above is probably my favorite line from 69 Love Songs, though it regularly (still, after nearly ten years!) receives challenges from the likes of, “I could make a career of being blue/ I could 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,” or, “There’ll be time enough for sex and drugs in heaven/ when our pheromones are turned up to eleven.” What I like about my number one—aside from the San Francisco reference, which evokes respectable feelings of homesickness which have replaced the questionable sentiments of kind for Sacramento—is that it serves as a sort of prism, refracting everything that I love about Stephen Merritt’s magnum opus, transmuting its unwieldy girth into a single moment of hilarity and sweetness.
If they are funny love songs, it’s because I find love funny. I remember reading that Merritt said something like that, but it is also true that among the 69 there are moments of beauty, sincerity and irresistible tongue-in-cheek cool. And as much as I have listened to these three discs (I admit to favoring the first), it is common practice for someone, in the midst of a conversation which has drifted into Magnetic Fields territory, to guide me toward a neglected or forgotten gem. Popular song’s backbone may very well be the love song (which is predicated upon feelings expressed in lines such as, “Now that you’ve made me want to die/ you tell me that you’re unboyfriendable“), and no one has ever managed to twist and contort it so abundantly and to such delightful degrees as The Magnetic Fields did with 69 Love Songs.
In hindsight, the ’90s seem to me a decade dominated by bands that expressed their earnestness cryptically, and inextricably linked their persona to the bind between this cryptic aspect and the immediacy (or immediate lack thereof) of their sound. This is a trend which slowed with the move into the aughts. It is easy to think of The Magnetic Fields at the crossroad, somewhere between zealous earnestness and deflective irony, engaged by the recalcitrant propositions of love but too wizened to take them at face value. The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs is a pastiche of sounds and sentiments, an exploration aimed at multiple, humorous perspectives of something that for all its absurdity is still central to human experience.