The Magnetic Fields’ three-disc album 69 Love Songs is a staggering achievement, a cultural landmark, a monument to romantic, yet urbane misery. Calling it a concept album seems inadequate. At once theatrical and literary, it’s a dazzling kaleidoscope of pop and Americana, a pageant of queer (or at least sexually ambiguous) and not-that-queer heartbreak, with occasional flurries of happiness. From track to track the several voices on the album whip from tender sincerity to extreme camp, adding up to 69 mostly great songs that worship, mock and interrogate love by turns, released just before the turn of the millennium.
That said, not all of the 69 songs are of equal quality, but perhaps deliberately so. To borrow a line from “The Book of Love” on disc one, some if it is transcendental; some of it is just really dumb. Some are captivating love stories with melodies that worm their way into your heart some are maudlin little ditties, some are bad gags, some are booby trapped. Really, though, that’s part of the charm of the album when taken as a whole. It’s unnecessary, quixotic, excessive, relentless, sometimes grotesque, even occasionally genuinely romantic.
The album is an overwhelming text on its own and more still has been written about it, but an album like this demands a thorough inventory, the kind that can only be done one song at a time. The challenge, of course, is that this three-disc album contains a much higher percentage of great songs than most albums of more standard length. But we are not afraid. So here it is, just in time for Valentine’s Day, all 69 of Magnetic Fields’ songs from the album—those you know by heart and all the ones you don’t quite remember.
69. “Yeah, Oh, Yeah”
Is this a Black Flag cover? No. What it is is an outrage. This is a murder ballad, a Punch and Judy show, definitely not a love song, and therefore doesn’t belong on an album called 69 Love Songs.
68. “Queen of the Savages”
Did you really just say savages? We have nothing more to add.
67. “Love is Like Jazz”
This song is an affront to both love and jazz, and it is really too cynical to tolerate. The reference to “Strange Fruit” is bizarre and, at best, out of place.
66. “A Pretty Girl is Like”
Somehow “A Pretty Girl is Like” manages to be even more upsetting than “Luckiest Guy.” A pretty girl is like some pretty terrible things, according to the lyrics. This song takes the idea of shallow romantic song and twists it into a horrifying mask, which is the way we tend to feel about happy, shallow love songs in the deepest pit of heartbreak. This is an attempt to destroy the love song all together, to avenge oneself perhaps, but its core is even more sour than that. This song is wretched.
65. “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”
Points have been deducted for toxic levels of “nice guy-ism” here. Sure, this syndrome had not been as thoroughly studied at the time of the album’s release as it is today, and it was severely under diagnosed, but that isn’t really an excuse. At least it’s slightly self aware, but not enough to save itself.
64. “Xylophone Track”
This track is a not particularly amusing parody of a blues song, perhaps because it’s both dashed off and self-satisfied or at least amused with itself. Sure, you could say the whole project is a self-indulgent in-joke, but most of the time the rest of us are allowed to enjoy it.
63. “It’s a Crime”
“It’s a Crime” is goofy, yet period-perfect, new-wave reggae. Although the band knows it’s silly, the song’s also irritating.
62. “Long-Forgotten Fairytale”
The Magnetic Fields
marry acid techno with indie pop here in a way that is listenable enough. One gets the feeling that all the flowers in the fairyland where the eponymous fairytale is set are DayGlo daisies, but everyone is wearing a vest and suspenders for some reason. If you let them, the rueful lyrics will take you out of the song in a dissociative club-drug kind of way. You could dance to the song while focusing your whole attention on the unhappy narrative Stephin Merritt spins in which a heartless ex-lover comes wandering back into the narrator’s life careless of the havoc they are about to cause. Or maybe they know exactly what they are doing. Either way, this grim fairytale is probably best forgotten.
61. “Love in the Shadows”
This gloomy, dreamlike vignette populated by such characters as Woman with No Nose and Old Guy with Gold Eye evokes some fascinating pulp novel from the ‘60s, the kind with a really cool cover illustration that you could stare at for hours. The steady bongo beat sets a tense mood. It’s kind of cool, but it also smacks of Tom Waits, which seems like a cop out. It all seems kind of like dusty jacket copy until Merritt sings, “Don’t laugh, I think you’re beautiful.” Then the drawing comes to life.
60. “Kiss Me Like You Mean It”
Merritt offers more religious metaphors here, this time packaged in actual gospel. Some folks have put forward the idea that this is a BD hymn, which is more palatable than what it sounds like, which is just a song about a really unhealthy relationship that can only end badly. (And yes, there is a huge difference between those two things.)
59. “I Don’t Believe in the Sun”
Although nicely written, “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” is too nakedly a parody of a sad love song to be truly enjoyed.
58. “The Things We Did and Didn’t Do”
This is basically the Celine Dion hit “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” translated into indie pop.
57. “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget”
Why you gotta be like this?
56. “Punk Love”
This song could be interpreted as mocking the idea of “punk love” or punk-rock love songs and, if so, it is doing it without a hint of affection. This is fair. Plus it’s short, which is appropriate.
55. “Experimental Music Love”
The layered vocals in this song creates quite a cool effect. You could start to wonder if maybe some experimental music lovin’ might not be too bad.
“Meaningless” is the Venn diagram of nihilist pop, manically upbeat tempos, and it’s a bit frightening because of it. Effective, but frightening.
53. “Boa Constrictor”
This is a faux-novelty tune along the lines of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You,” but with the genuine charm of a real novelty hit like Melanie’s “Brand New Key.” The spare lament is positively adorable, that is until about two thirds in when it goes horribly wrong. Then it’s over.
This fan favorite is 100 percent G-rated and Claudia Gonson’s singing provides some much needed relief from Merritt’s lugubriousness. All the talk about zebras and pyramids makes it one of the quirkiest and most whimsical songs on an already quirky and whimsical album. The only trouble is that the accordion makes it slightly circus punk around the edges.
51. “Grand Canyon”
It’s not seriously a country song, but, like a lot of the other takes on various musical genres of on 69 Love Songs, Grand Canyon isn’t a parody either. The Magnetic Fields had enough respect for country and perhaps for themselves not to parody the genre. The song itself, minus its slightly odd instrumentation, could have fit in on country radio in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In a way, it was the simply right tool for the particular job here, which was to be quietly and earnestly mournful. This gospel touched tune does that quite well, but in the end, it comes off as just a job, or maybe a response to a writing prompt. The Magnetic Fields are beguiling when you can’t quite tell how invested they are in the song, or the idea of love. You aren’t sure, then, how invested you should be, and that keeps you pleasantly off balance.
50. “Abigail, Belle of Kilronan”
In many ways this is the strangest and most impenetrable song on 69 Love Songs. It’s just an Irish ballad. Is it a sincere homage to doomed loves (the purest kind) of days long ago? Does it contain a wistful yearning to know such heroic love? Perhaps Merritt figured an Irish war ballad would round things out nicely? (It does.) Did they do it just to prove they could? If so, it’s on the right side of showing off because they really get away with it. Like a terrible romance novel, you will have the feeling you are being manipulated in some way but you won’t really mind. You might mind the way the ukulele keeps switching between the right and the left speakers. Don’t listen to this song on headphones.
49. “The Night You Can’t Remember”
Unlike “Abigail, Belle of Kilronan,” “The Night You Can’t Remember” is a bawdy kind of Irish folk song. As songs torn from the librettos of impossible musical sex comedies go, this one’s pretty great.
48. “The Way You Say Good-Night”
This song can be encapsulated in one line: “I dream all day long of the way you say good night.” It’s a darn good line.
47. “I Can’t Touch You Anymore”
May we all have the courage and backbone that Merritt models in this doomy homemade synth-pop breakup song. It sounds like it could have been recorded on a home computer and emailed as a file to the soon to be ex-lover. Maybe it came with a DIY e-card that had an animation of cartoon hearts breaking into little pieces.
46. “Very Funny”
Merritt saves the kicker in this song for the very last line, ending “Very Funny” on a ragged, emotionally unraveling note.