Big Love: Lush, lovely misanthropy ages well
Shopping for music reissues is like hitting the sundae buffet on your birthday: It’s one of the few times you are allowed, if not obligated, to put aside your cares about portion size. In the world of repackaged albums, volume is king, sets are super-sized and few demos are considered too scruffy for inclusion. The most bank-breaking reissue of Pearl Jam’s Ten, for example, came with dueling mixes of the album, a live DVD, a vinyl LP, a replica cassette of Vedder’s early demos, some recipes, a coupon for 50 percent off your second pair of shoes, Six Flags tickets and a Don Mattingly rookie card; an apparently sizable audience was once even heard clamoring for 22 outtakes from the Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience.
Magnetic Fields’ spry, sprawling 69 Love Songs album was no small investment in its original proportions, and its three 23-track discs—each loaded end-to-end with near-comprehensive coverage of the highs and horrors of love—cemented Stephin Merritt’s standing as a kind of misanthropic dark knight. And so, while the recently-reissued version is plus-sized—the whole shebang comprised of six vinyl LPs (plus a code to download the remastered MP3s)—this new, limited-run package features no outtakes, no demos, no live cuts, no extra anything. It makes sense, as anything more would bungle the math. Plus, Merritt doesn’t exactly seem like the kind of guy who would throw open his journals. “He made Lou Reed look like Little Orphan Annie,” says author Neil Gaiman in the trailer for the newly released, decade-in-the-making documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields.
And anyway, as you may remember, the original record is really, really good—an elegantly dour and richly rewarding indie-Broadway monster that likely originated the term “unboyfriendable” and contains one of the world’s only instances of a banjo-based showtune containing the line, “It makes me drink beeeeeer.” Love being dumb and timeless, the sentiments of 69 Love Songs are just as potent today as they were in 1999 (or, for that matter, in 999), all smushed and mixed up and gender-bent. Giddiness (“A Chicken with Its Head Cut Off”) is plopped right next to broken hipster sneering (“How Fucking Romantic”) which sits next to shivering heartbreak (“Come Back from San Francisco”) which shares a bench with unabashed sex talk (“Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”)—all without any hint of cognitive dissonance.
But while the dramatics are fun, the set’s lasting power comes from how Merritt so consistenly relates these brutal love stories with such an incredible economy of language It’s not easy, for instance, to pull off a Broadway homage that’s also a Broadway song and call it “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” and yet that track is bracing and gorgeous and sounds like it has been around for a hundred years.
After all this time, the most surprising thing is Merritt’s stark, almost distant self-assuredness. He allows himself the occasional clunky lyric (“A pretty girl is like a violent crime / If you do it wrong you could do time / But if you do it right it is sublime,” from the Irving Berlin love note “A Pretty Girl Is Like”) like he’s daring you to call him on it, and he knows you won’t. And the album’s centerpieces—the potent “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing,” the noble “The Book of Love” and the synthetic smoochfest “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”—will sound just as fresh 10 years from now as they did 10 years ago.
What the 69 Love Songs reissue might lack in bonus features, it makes up for with the allure of rarity—only 3,000 sets will be produced. It seems the point isn’t just to hear the songs again. It’s that those who would most wish to drink in such lush, lovely misanthropy should do so in style.