The making of The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs
By Steve Klinge
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
I love it when you sing to me
You can sing me anything
(“The Book Of Love,” 69 Love Songs, volume one, song 12)
The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs is a tour de force: unprecedented, cheeky, sentimental and hilarious. Some of it is transcendental; some of it is ridiculous, if never really dumb. Before the three-CD set came out in 1999, the Magnetic Fields were a beloved cult band with a convoluted history of shifting lead singers, record labels and satellite projects. Stephin Merritt wrote songs full of wit and wordplay; he was as big a fan of ABBA, Phil Spector and OMD as he was of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter. With 69 Love Songs, the world discovered that secret.
Merritt originally conceptualized writing a revue of love songs to be sung by a variety of vocalists, akin to what he did with the 6ths’ 1995 project Wasps’ Nests, which featured contributions from indie-rock luminaries such as Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, Luna’s Dean Wareham and Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan.
“The conception of 69 Love Songs began with the idea of 100 songs, an industrial number, which got reduced a few minutes later to 69, the number of love,” says Merritt. “It began with a revue idea, but I realized I would have to record all the songs anyway, to teach them to the singers—singers can’t be bothered to learn how to read music; what do they do all day?—so I might as well just make it a record.”
Merritt was living in New York City, and each morning he would go to St. Dymphna’s Café in the East Village to write songs and drink tea; in the evening, he shifted to Dick’s Bar and cocktails for another writing session. He wrote a total of 100 songs, some after starting recording, and chose 69 for the album. His goal was to write as many different types of love songs as he could in as many different styles as he could.
“Ideally, each song would have come from a different universe,” he says. “I made long lists of musical genres, and picked the ones I could imagine myself working within.”
Thus: “Punk Love,” “Experimental Music Love,” “Love Is Like Jazz,” “World Love”; synth-pop, acoustic singer/songwriter ballads, Jesus And Mary Chain-like distortion, country songs and show tunes. And: “My Sentimental Melody,” “How Fucking Romantic,” “Kiss Me Like You Mean It,” “Crazy For You (But Not That Crazy)”; songs of wistful longing, bitter recriminations, sincere devotion, ironic exaggeration; homosexual, heterosexual, erotic, drunken, unrequited, eternal.
It’s an absurdly ambitious undertaking, but its ambition is part of its charm. Merritt friend Daniel Handler began work on his own ambitious project, the 13 volumes of A Series Of Unfortunate Events, around the same time. “They’re both hopeless cases, reckless gestures and overstuffed experiments,” says Handler of 69 Love Songs and the Lemony Snicket books.
Over the course of the 69 tracks, Merritt deconstructs the love song—the book of love—even though he acknowledges it is a foolhardy and impossible task. “The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure” tells the tale of a debate with the Swiss semiotician who claims not to know what love is because it offers “no understanding, no closure.” The speaker, however, objects and sides himself with the writers of classic Motown love songs. The song contains some of Merritt’s cleverest rhymes:
I’m just a great composer
And not a violent man
But I lost my composure
And I shot Ferdinand
Crying, “It’s well and kosher
To say you don’t understand
But this is for Holland/Dozier/Holland”
(“The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure,” 69 Love Songs, volume three, song six)
Most of the 69 songs clock in well under three minutes, and as a whole, the set is a dizzying, many-splendored experience.
“Part of the variety-above-all approach to the album was that I cultivated deliberately conflicting aesthetic criteria,” says Merritt, “whereby if ‘Punk Love’ is a good song, ‘For We Are The King Of The Boudoir’ is unlistenable, and vice versa. I find Shakespeare and Ozu fascinating because they seem to contain the world, as opposed to setting a mood; and I figured three hours is longer than any one mood could ever last, so it would be far better to try to contain a multitude of moods. One of my models was an obscure orchestral record from 1960 called Music To Break Any Mood, by Dick Schory’s New Percussion Ensemble.”
When recording began, Merritt gathered the rest of the Magnetic Fields: his high-school friend and manager Claudia Gonson on piano and percussion; John Woo on banjo, lead guitar and mandolin; Sam Davol on cello and flute. Merritt played his beloved ukuleles and many other instruments, and Handler played accordion. Merritt sang most of the songs, but he drafted Gonson, Shirley Simms, L.D. Beghtol and Dudley Klute to each sing two songs per CD.
After three initial months of songwriting, most of 69 Love Songs was recorded in Merritt’s apartment on reel-to-reel, Pro Tools, ADAT tape or Gonson’s four-track cassette recorder over the course of nine months. Merritt tried out many of the songs in different styles, and some changed drastically along the way. Murderously funny duet “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” was one.
“When we recorded it, we sat down with a couple guitars and strummed it out, very plain and simple,” says Gonson. “So, I figured it would be a straight-ahead country duet in the style of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s ‘You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.’ Imagine my surprise when I heard the final mix and discovered Stephin had transformed it into a Jesus And Mary Chain song.”Some changes generated from accidents. “In the confusion of dozens of tapes and formats, I accidentally erased most of John Woo’s banjo part on ‘Reno Dakota,’ which is just banjo and voice,” says Merritt. “So, I decided that instead of him playing it again, I sampled what was left and rebuilt the song around playing it up and down the keyboard. It’s cooler that way—the tempo changes when the chords change.”
“I think the enormity of the project really suited him, and me as well—nose to the grindstone, no time to stop or do over,” says Gonson, who, in her role as manager, would meet with Merritt in the morning to discuss progress. “He had made a detailed chart, saying which songs were started, in completion, or completed, and detailing what needed to be done on them. We discussed stuff like who should sing or play on what, coordinating people’s schedules, maybe procuring an instrument, and eventually album design and layout. It was good for us to just hunker down and work our way along, with him entrenched in his creative work and me handing the coordination, troubleshooting and facilitating.”
“When we were working on the album, it felt tiny,” says Handler. “Stephin’s apartment studio was tiny. A tiny number of people knew it was happening. The songs felt tiny: small miniatures that people would stop by and add something to. The album felt like a treasured secret, and then the secret kept spreading.”
Beghtol, of the Moth Wranglers and Flare, was also the art director for the finished album. He felt the project was something exceptional from the start, and his sense of the scale differs from Handler’s.
“It was so gigantic and sprawling for indie rock,” he says. “Very ambitious. It’s sort of an open secret that indie-rock people are as resistant to change and evolution as any other clique, so I had my doubts. But I loved most of the songs I’d heard as they were being recorded and mixed, and as we were designing the booklet and box, so I thought it just might work—it was definitely something special and unique. The fact that it was also really great was incidental. Of course there was no guarantee anyone would care about it, or even ever hear it—lots of fairly serious setbacks made it all very dicey at times.”
That “indie rock” designation is a bit of a sticking point in the history of the Magnetic Fields. The band had signed with Merge Records in time for its fourth album, 1994’s The Charm Of the Highway Strip (an early version of which had been rejected by Capitol in 1988), after migrating through several tiny independent labels. But Merritt disavows affinity with indie rock; his method and means may be indie, but his songwriting models are classic pop from throughout the late 20th century.
Figuring out how to release a three-volume set was “dicey,” too. Gonson was worried about the feasibility of the whole thing.
“When he first presented it to me I was fearful, a big naysayer,” she says. “I loved the concept, but I thought the record label would never go for it, that it would be too unwieldy and expensive. I worried no one would buy it and we would all be even more destitute.”
Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance from Merge turned out to be onboard from the start, although the logistics required negotiations.
“To my surprise, Stephin and Merge were more or less on the same page,” says Gonson. “Mac and Laura loved the idea of the project, and supported it enthusiastically. I was more freaked out, and I think the guys at Touch And Go, our distributor, were also concerned about the investment. Negotiation-wise, it wasn’t too complicated because our deals back then were so small; just two-page contracts with the basic information laid out. The whole album cost a ridiculously small amount of money to make, and was recorded in Stephin’s apartment on a shoestring budget. So, the big discussions we had were mostly about packaging, marketing and budgeting, such as whether to do all three discs separately, or a three-in-one; whether we could afford the box, the metallic inks, the 70-page full-color booklet. Stuff like that.”
Merritt had sequenced the final LP to maximize variety rather than coherence. The mood is constantly breaking, which is part of the fun.
“Symmetry was principle enough,” Merritt says of sequencing the three sets of 23 songs. “Just having each of the four guest singers singing two songs per CD, widely spaced, was halfway to an organizing principle. The original order was alphabetical, but that happened to frontload eight acoustic-guitar numbers, which would have been extremely lopsided and misrepresentative, so I changed it all around.”
Merritt has never been happy with Merge’s decision to release the three CDs separately, with a “limited edition” of the three-volume boxed set with the booklet (which includes a song-by-song discussion between Handler and Merritt). Merritt didn’t have models of three-record sets—he admires Roger Dean’s artwork for Yessongs; he acknowledges that Half-Japanese’s debut 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts is “arguably more audacious than 69 Love Songs”; he’s never owned Sandinista!—but the sprawl and variety is part of the experience, of course, as are the various mathematical symmetries of the overall set.
But the economies prevailed, and Merritt agreed to Merge’s plan. McCaughan and Ballance were willing to take the risk. McCaughan recounts their position in Our Noise, the 2009 oral history of Merge Records: “We had a connection to our bands, and we wanted to be able to do this cool thing. And sometimes it’s worth it to sacrifice the reality of the bottom line for art, just to have a cool thing. We’d print just enough of the limited edition so we could sell out, for the hardcore fans. And everybody else would just buy single volumes.”
But the buzz had built leading up to the September 1999 release, and the album, in all its iterations, sold out immediately, which left Merge scrambling to fulfill the demand. Merritt calls it “the opposite of chart placement.”
“The album was conceived as a publicity stunt, so I wasn’t surprised to see that it got lots of publicity,” says Merritt. “What pleasantly surprises me is that people continue to listen, now that hardly anyone listens to music at all.”
To date, according to Nielsen SoundScan, the three-volume boxed set has sold 83,000, with an additional 58,000 for volume one, 34,000 for volume two, and 29,000 for volume three (although he says he often forgets that the CDs are available separately, Merritt says volumes two and three are “secretly better” than volume one). And it’s been fodder for countless mix tapes.
“I think Stephin has it right when he says that the gimmick was brilliant,” says Gonson. “All his albums have equally brilliant songs, but to package and sell it so specifically is very powerful: All the songs will be about love, equally hilariously funny and powerfully moving, and presented in dozens of different styles. It is tremendous fun. Plus the album sounds very joyful, at least to me. It sounds like he was having fun making it, which I believe he was.”
Handler, who is currently at work on a novel, was initially shocked by the attention 69 Love Songs received. “We played the album in its entirety at the Knitting Factory, which felt like an enormous triumph, but then the triumphs kept dwarfing one another. Cover of the Village Voice, everywhere on year-end polls, small tour, bigger tour, international tour, Alice Tully Hall. It was undeniably not tiny.”
The album marked many turning points in the band’s career. It redefined the Magnetic Fields and expanded its audience.
“Before 69 Love Songs, the Magnetic Fields was me in my tiny, squalid studio in Alphabet City,” says Merritt. “After 69 Love Songs, the Magnetic Fields was a ‘band’ with credit cards and a record contract.”
“Before 69 Love Songs, the Magnetic Fields were a 10,000-selling band; after, we were a 100,000-selling band,” says Gonson. “Before, we were college-radio favorites; after, we were NPR favorites. Before, our audiences were largely teenaged or 20-something indie kids; after, our 20-something fans knew of us from their parents. Before, people wrote to me saying that Stephin’s albums saved their lives when they were suicidal; after, people wrote to me saying that they fell in love with their spouse because of this album.”
Since, the Magnetic Fields have released four albums, in addition to Merritt’s work with Chris Ewen and Gonson in the Future Bible Heroes, with the Gothic Archies (including songs for the audiobooks of A Series Of Unfortunate Events) and with numerous other projects. But 69 Love Songs is his masterpiece.
According to Handler, “The album ends up rewarding the contradictions we desire from pop music. It’s easy pleasure and lasting delight. The lyrics and production are designed for short-attention spans—puns! twists! new genres! goofy noises!—but then the songs settle in and stay in the brain and heart. You can listen to this album for years and then, suddenly, discover a song you’ve heard a million times, but never quite listened to.”
Gonson still manages Merritt’s career while raising her three-year-old, and Merritt keeps her busy. “Right now, for example, he is working on a book, a theater show, a radio play, a silent-film score, some TV work, and he recently finished scoring a dance piece,” she says.
Beghtol, whose current band is LD&CO, wrote a book about 69 Love Songs for the 33 1/3 Continuum series that’s full of insider details and fascinating insights. As for Merritt, the album served its purpose.
“It’s my calling card, as I intended it to be,” he says. “I knew it would change my life—otherwise I wouldn’t have slaved over it for a year—and it has allowed me to make Chinese operas and buy an apartment. Eventually, everyone who ever heard of it will drop dead, but until then, it’s my claim to fame.”