The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs: He Wrote the Book of Love

The Magnetic Fields“The book of love is long and boring,
No one can lift the damn thing,
It’s full of charts, and facts and figures,
And instructions for dancing,
But I… I love it when you read me things…”

This time I’m eulogizing an album: 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields. I believe it to be one of the all-time great albums, even though it was probably conceived as a bit of a gimmick. For those unfamiliar with it, it really is an album – a triple disc album – of 69 love songs. Some people complain that it is just too big and ambitious, and the quality is patchy. Slight confession: I’m not personally a fan of all 69 songs, so when I think of (and write) about it I’m really thinking of the ’43 Love Songs’ iTunes playlist I made over a decade ago. And because I’m lazy, the ones that never made that cut are now just titles to me.

But before I get ahead of myself: who are ‘the Magnetic Fields’? And what sort of music do they make?

Well, once again, YouTube to the rescue. Here is the trailer to a documentary (highly recommended for any Stephin Merritt / Magnetic Fields fan) called ‘Strange Powers’:

I’m experimenting in this article with writing fewer than 8,000 words, so I won’t go into any further backstory on this.  I will say that, of all the albums I own, this the one that I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in, and no matter how recently I last listened to it.  Like pretty much everything else I eulogize, you might find it beautiful beyond words or you might find it annoying beyond belief (and I’m quite happy with that), and so if you watch that video and think you’ll find the band and the album concept intolerable, you’re probably right.  And much of that will probably have something to do with how you feel about bubblegum pop.  The songwriter behind the Magnetic Fields once wrote what he called the “Formulist Manifesto”, and here is an extract from it:

“All art aspires to the condition of Top 40 bubblegum pop … Sample formula: A song based on a slow unchanging repetition of first and fourth chords will express a calm wandering quality with eternally unrealized expectations which combines well with a text suggesting analogous emotions. Anyone with a very basic music education can use this formula to write any number of songs with an outcome known beforehand […]

We the formulists (with a sigh of relief) renounce the deluded striving of moderns for self-expression through novelty.”

In other words, like me, he has a love of formulaic songwriting, and believes that those formulas are able to produce songs that are utterly profound as well as utterly stupid.  And those two are not mutually exclusive.  Or, to quote him again:

“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…”

So this album is really 69 different collisions between the New York indie avant garde and the craft of Tin Pan Alley.  Weirdly, I find the actual production (i.e. the way it’s recorded) incredibly ropey.  A charming song like ‘Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side’ will have this bizarre percussion sound all the way through, which is probably a hihat cymbal put through a very thick plate reverb, but sounds like a robot marching through a tunnel of puddles, and is totally at odds with the mood of the song.  But that weakness is also the album’s strength.  There is so much *sound* on it: so many different instruments and arrangements and ideas.  Maybe 10% of these ideas completely fail, 10% are pretty dodgy, 30% are good, 40% are magnificent and 10% are completely magical.  My ears never get bored listening to it.

But upstaging the sound is the poetry of the lyrics.  All of this cleverness is of no fucking use to man nor beast unless there is actually some insight and wisdom in there.  This album has that quality that the best art has: it makes me constantly say “Yes! That happened to me!”  It’s packed with emotional situations that I feel sure I’ve been through myself, even though when I stop and think about it there probably aren’t enough hours in the day for to me to actually have done so.  And however much Merritt may say that he never writes from personal experience and that the album is about love songs not love, it turns out that Reno Dakota (the title of a song on the album) is not a fictitious name: he’s a real guy.  And the ‘Strange Powers’ documentary features an interview (in the Extras I think) with him which demonstrates clearly that the song is completely autobiographical.  My sense is that Merritt is very shy, and sometimes likes to hide behind sarcasm and cynicism.  The humour of the album (69 – geddit?) belies the fact that it’s actually, under all that, a joyful, tragic and brilliant examination of what being in love actually feels like.

He likes his similes: there is a song called ‘Love Is Like Jazz’, and another called ‘Love Is Like A Bottle Of Gin’.  My theory: Love is not a thing, any more than Happiness is a thing. They’re umbrella terms for lots of smaller, far more subtle and specific things, and I think that’s what the album captures so well: from the melancholy of ‘If You Don’t Cry’ to the cheerful bitterness of ‘Meaningless’ to the joy of ‘When My Boy Walks Down The Street’ and ‘The Book of Love’.

My favourite song on the album is probably whichever one I happen to be listening to at the moment you ask me, but perhaps ‘The Book of Love’ sums up the album best: pop-literate (referencing ‘(Who Wrote The) Book Of Love’ by the Monotones, a song which in turn is referenced in ‘American Pie’ by Don McLean, ‘Rock & Roll’ by Led Zepplin and ‘Every Day I Write The Book’ by Elvis Costello), and of course literate-literate, celebrating the cerebral mystery and the dumb fun of music and love.  (And, as it happens, it will also hopefully be the song I will be married to in just a few days.)

So do please join with me in singing huzzah for bubblegum pop formulae: long may they help us explain our lives.

“The book of love is long and boring,
And written very long ago,
It’s full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes,
And things we’re all too young to know…”