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.
45. “Love is Like a Bottle of Gin”
“Love is Like a Bottle of Gin” doesn’t have the most indelible melody of the bunch, but 69 Love Songs is almost defiantly about the lyrics. The lyrics to this one are poetic in a plain way. They make you think and perhaps smile sadly. You suddenly feel wiser than your years, however many you may have. Interestingly, these things are also an occasional side effect of gin.
44. “Two Kinds of People”
Welp, this song sums up the delusional arrogance of all-consuming love pretty succinctly.
43. “For We Are the King of The Boudoir”
This song is hilarious, even if the humor mostly hinges on the fact that the term tryst is inherently gross.
42. “World Love”
Is “World Love” a mocking theme song for mactivists? Is it a merciless skewering of world beat as a file under and marketing-bred subculture? A harsh parody of crowd-pleasing “political songs?” Is it a sad regretful farewell to the idealism of youth? It could be taken as a warning that playing fast and loose when it comes to mixing politics and romance of any sort is never a good look. It works well as all of these things, and also as a song.
41. “My Sentimental Melody”
This could be the one sheet or press release for the album. It encapsulates everything about 69 Love Songs, however, its perfect balance means that it is not as dynamic as some of the more idiosyncratic tunes, but kudos to the band for sounding mild while actually being vengeful.
This song is a perfectly wry couplet that you could almost pour into a martini glass. It would really be pretty great as a cocktail: One part sound financial advice, two parts shade at the vulgarity of the wealthy, dash of advertising jingle, shake with ice, garnish with rose petals. Fake ones are fine.
39. “Acoustic Guitar”
This song comes in the middle of a musical that was on Broadway for a little while in the mid-’90s that no one remembers. It got good reviews though.
38. “Strange Eyes”
“Strange Eyes” has the distinction of being the weirdest song on the album. It’s a song from the decent autobiographical sci-fi opera that the writer of “Bitter Tears” mounted in the early ‘80s.
37. “Bitter Tears”
If you look at this song as part of a very bad way off-Broadway, autobiographical, glam-rock musical from the late ‘70s, it’s utterly fantastic.
36. “If You Don’t Cry”
“If You Don’t Cry” is self-consciously twisted ‘60s pop. It’s like Petula Clark finally out of love with all the lights downtown or a ghost haunting the Chelsea Hotel that’s been made into a song.
35. “Blue You”
Who could say no to this eerie Gershwin-inspired experiment that raises the blues to the status of a cosmic force? On 69 Love Songs, only “Strange Eyes” is weirder.
34. “Busby Berkeley Dreams”
This seems like an experiment to see if an otherwise good song can drown itself in its own mawkishness. A worthwhile exercise no doubt, but unfortunately the results are positive.
33. “How to Say Goodbye”
When you find out that your past relationship was based on lies, you will be much better off listening to this song on repeat than listening to your friends or therapist try to tell you, “your feelings were real to you” or whatever. Merritt sings the word “baby” more convincingly than most songwriters of his generation.
32. “No One Will Ever Love You”
“No One” almost seems out of place on as album packed with jams that have drawn comparisons to Noel Coward and Cole Porter, but it belongs. A gauzy (or maybe bleary?) torch song that could have been written in almost any era, it efficiently evokes the loss of innocence that comes with heartbreak and the echoing void that is left in the aftermath. Lots of songs try to do this. Very few seem to really know what they are talking about. This one does.
31. “You’re My Only Home”
This song comes off as completely artless, sung from the point of view of someone who has been destroyed by love and who has made their peace with it. Its most devastating lyric goes as follows: “When you cancel dinner plans / When you cross the street and you don’t take my hand / When you make impossible demands / I wish I didn’t understand.”
30. “The One You Really Love”
There’s little real emotion expressed through the vocals of Merritt and L. D. Beghtol in this crushing folk ballad. It’s as if it’s a very old song that’s been sung for generations and none even really thinks about the lyrics anymore. That makes it even sadder.
29. “Epitaph for My Heart”
Musically, in terms of things like instrumentation, this has more to recommended it than most songs on the album, with its pleasant acoustic jangle and guitar solo. It captures the spirit of indie in the ‘90s-early 2000s—disenchanted with rock or at least the expectations of the genre’s audience, unafraid to be weird, unselfconsciously depressive. So, yes, it sounds a tiny bit dated, but it is also a perfect specimen.
28. “Promises of Eternity”
Here we have Stephen Sondheim by way of Neil Diamon’d s_Songs in the Key of Z_. As such, it is much better and more affecting than it has any business being.
27. “Sweet-Lovin’ Man”
It might be a matter of taste, but the songs that ride the line between authenticity and jokiness are perhaps the best examples of what The Magnetic Fields can be. And this touching/wacky send up of schmaltzy ‘70s country rock in “Sweet-Lovin’ Man” is a prime example. Still, it’s darker undercurrent to “Sweet Lovin’ Man” that really makes it great. Gonson does the vocal honors and sounds just a little too dreamy, almost like she’s been drugged. You want to get lost in the dream, but it’s a little too dreamy. The song itself is hinting that you should wake up, maybe just so that later it can claim it tried to warn you. This song is basically that manipulative, emotionally unavailable dude in his late 20s that you dated after college, except that guy is terrible and this song is not. It’s aged better too.
26. “(Crazy for You But) Not That Crazy”
This is one of those tracks on 69 Love Songs that portrays love as a kind of hyper-religious mania, which is an idea with plenty of pedigree. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare has Theseus famously remark, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.” This is just a way of restating that age old sentiment in a way that would make it easily digestible for ‘90s alternative teens, not because it’s necessary to do that but because it’s amusing. It’s Elizabethan comedy dipped in Manic Panic semi-permanent hair dye.
25. “I Shatter”
This is so thoroughly Merrittian, which makes it extremely strange, but also compelling. With its mess of audio effects, treated vocals, cello and professions of insanity, “I Shatter” is the highest dosage of Stephin Merritt that is considered to be safe.
24. “Parades Go By”
In his 33 1/3 book on 69 Love Songs, Beghtol, who also designed the album art and plays harmonium on “Xylophone Track,” asserts there is a vampire horror theme here. There may be something to that, at least in the sense that the song takes the idea that to know love is to experience a kind of immortality and then runs with it until it turns morbid. Merritt’s statement on the subject is that he was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. Would be great for the soundtrack to a paranormal romantic comedy.
23. “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing”
You wonder, are we supposed to imagine a timeless scenario—an old flame, a last waltz, some noble reason why the two will never be together. Or, are the courtly blandishments and old-timey ukulele meant to throw an inappropriately soft filter over ‘80s Night at Mr. Beery’s with your ex who you are supposedly just friends with now? Is this, like many of the best tunes on 69 Love Songs, a case where the narrator is clinging to some romantic narrative in order to shield their psyche from an unacceptable reality? If so, is the filter really inappropriate? What is the difference between the two situations, really? Probably, Merritt has us over-thinking things, without even much apparent effort on his part, which means he won this one. Damn.
22. “I’m Sorry I Love You”
Politely apologetic hippie folk rock raga jam with painfully recognizable sentiments? All right. Shirley Simms sings, “I’m sorry that I love you/It’s a phase I’m goin’ through / I’m sorry that I love you.” We’ve all been there: mildly embarrassed of our feelings but helpless to do anything about them and not embarrassed enough to bother hiding them. Or are the kids so much harder now? Or maybe they’re softer, depending on how you want to look at it.
21. “My Only Friend”
The Magnetic Fields
offer a wonderful tribute to Billie Holiday and, in a larger sense, to the music that helps us get through and even rebuild ourselves in the wake of trauma. You can feel Holiday as a presence in this song, a kind of patron saint of the lonely and abandoned.
20. “The Sun Goes Down and The World Goes Dancing”
There’s a feeling of elation in this song that sets it apart from every other song on the album. The story goes that Merritt originally conceived of 69 Love Songs as a musical revue. It’s easy to imagine when you hear the wildly hummable “The Sun Goes Down.” It might be the most plausible as a show tune of all the songs he released as part of this project.
The character in this song doesn’t know why he feels like dancing. It could be love, or he could be in a musical that only exists in Merritt’s mind. When Merritt makes reference to “all the endless nights when I wished I could still cry” we know that, even though this is a happy song, it belongs to a very sad musical.
19. “How Fucking Romantic”
Can we somehow bottle this and add it to gin drinks? It’s acrid and acrimonious, but exquisitely bitter and slightly herbal. The song is just a tiny bit crass and sweary too, which adds some spice. Frank Sinatra would have done a wonderful job interpreting it. Sadly, he passed the year before 69 Love Songs was released.
More stylish than substantial, but, oh, how stylish it is. Ersatz yé-yé pop is a great look for the Fields. Merritt’s voice is like an infrared heat lamp on this one. You can practically feel his breath.
17. “Fido, Your Leash is Too Long”
This is not really a song about a dog. It’s a song about the untenable, yet unavoidable situations created by possessiveness in romantic relationships. The music is made up entirely of squishy, squelchy noises, which points up the ridiculousness of this aspect of the human condition.
16. “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”
One of the catchiest and most (cult) classic numbers of the 69, this plea to an absent lover manages to be endearing and incredibly horny at the same time—always a seductive combination—while offering interesting ideas for spicing up your long distance relationship. Note: “let’s pretend” is one of the most common phrases sung on the album. It’s use here is one of the least pathetic.
15. “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old”
The kind of song to make you want to serenade someone who you want to spend the rest of your life with, or renew your vows, or meet someone who you want to spend the rest of your life with. Or just go dancing. Apart from some of the lyrics, this sounds like the kind of well-worn American folk ballads whose author is unknown. Consider that writing one of those can’t be easy.
14. “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off”
The Fields add just the right amount of pathos to thicken the humor here. The lyrics to the bridge, “we don’t have to be stars exploding in the night / or electric eels under the covers / we don’t have to be anything quite so unreal, let’s just be lovers,” are some of the most heart-melting on the album, but keep in mind that the character Merritt inhabits here is married.
13. “Washington D.C.”
On “Washington D.C.,” Gonson’s sparkling vocal performance is so uplifting that it cuts through the middle of disc two like a blast of fresh air. The song’s cheeriness and optimism in the face of a long-distance relationship makes it stand out from its fellows like a canary-yellow dress at a funeral. Very hard to listen to and not feel happy.
12. “The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be”
Most songs on 69 Love Songs are short, otherwise the album would be unbearable. Some of the shortest are among the finest, though. Take this tidy miniature, which calls to mind a small porcelain figurine of Saint Sebastian or some other thing that is simultaneously genteel and ghoulish, or maybe a Southwestern Surrealist collage where Christ’s briar encircled heart has been snipped away and replaced by a pincushion cactus in full bloom. Like good flash fiction, it’s exactly as long as it needs to be to leave a permanent stain on your mind.
11. “Reno Dakota”
“Reno Dakota” has some of the best word play on the album. One thing nearly all of the songs on the album have in common is that the object of the singer’s affections has no discernible qualities other than being unbelievably heartless and also possibly worth dying over. This is crucial to the magic of 69 Love Songs because it helps the songs to work as pop while also sometimes helping to keep the love interest’s gender ambiguous. This is the case here, but it also just seemed like a good time to point that out.
10. “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”
Given that it’s about shooting a Swiss Semiotician to defend (anachronistically) the honor of a Motown songwriting team, this is not one of the most lyrically accessible songs in the collection. Musically, it’s stranger than it seems. As one of the Magnetic Fields’s loop songs, it features everyone playing the same thing from the start to finish, and it’s garnished with whoa-whoas and a single set of handclaps. But the claps make the song and, in its own way, it’s one of the most romantic songs on the album. This would be a good album closer, but it comes in around the middle of disc three. Demerits: Not really a love song. More of a murder ballad. See also: “Yeah, Oh, Yeah.”
9. “Come Back from San Francisco”
This folk-pop lament stands out on the album for its unadorned loveliness. Simms cycles though hope, wistfulness, hopelessness and back again. All the while, the focus of her affections is still in San Fran, and sounds as though they like it there. A kind of resolution occurs when the heroine finally succumbs to anger in the coda. Lots of us have been in this place, but the vast majority of us will never be able to describe it in such graceful lines as, “You need me like the wind needs the trees to blow in.”
8. “When My Boy Walks Down the Street”
Enthusiastic odes to guys as passive objects of desire are rare in pop music, which makes this one that much more of a treasure (but don’t worry, we’ve got some more of them here). Sprinkled with glitter and splashed with reverb, surreal, but whimsical and full of vivid images, it’s a little late-’60s San Francisco psych and a little early ‘70s glam. The primitive garage-pop foundation underscores its echoes of classic tunes like “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” by The Shangri-Las.
7. “I Don’t Want to Get Over You”
As clever as they are, all of the very best songs on 69 Love Longs are much too relatable (and touching) not to take seriously, even personally, as songs about love. “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” is one of these. The lyrics are up there with any of Dorothy Parker’s epigrams as far as droll wit goes, but, like Parker’s verse, Merritt’s best is as truthful as it is funny. The truthful part of it is that, as painful as going through a break up is, the part where you have to accept things and “get over” someone can really be the worst. Admitting what everyone already knows, that hanging onto your pain can seem safer and more appealing than the uncertainty of moving on, is truthfulness worthy of endless standing ovations. Humor here is just a candy coating to help the honesty go down, maybe for all concerned.
6. “Absolutely Cuckoo”
Opening the opus, “Absolutely Cuckoo” is the first song on the first disc. It’s a light, brisk, puppy eyed ditty that serves as an introduction to what you are in for and eases you into it, in a frog boiling kind of way. It’s iconic as the gateway to 69 Love Songs and plays its role well, introducing themes (like madness) that will become familiar. The tone is bright enough that you could almost overlook the fact that the song contains a suicide threat. Some will sympathize easily with the character in the song, who is plaintive and plainly terrified, as many people are in the face of a budding romance. The fact that it can be so odd and yet so easy to identify with is what makes it great as a pop song and one of the best of the 69.
5. “I Think I Need a New Heart”
This is the official anthem of good intentions and it is wrenching.
4. “All My Little Words”
Wise, tender and softly defeated, this really could be one of the best love songs, one of those transcendent pages in The Book of Love, even if it is tear-stained. To fall in love with someone you can never tie down is very human; to recognize your predicament and philosophically resign yourself is divine. Beghtol sings this one and gives a sensitive, articulate performance, while Simms’s backing vocals seem to prod you to sing along. It’s at least one of the best on 69 Love Songs and certainly of the best indie-pop love songs.
3. “Asleep and Dreaming”
A lullaby for a grown up, a love psalm, a moment of almost unbearable vulnerability and surrender—“Asleep and Dreamin” is all of these things. It expresses the kind of love that parents feel for their children, the kind that is utterly blind (“I don’t know if you’re beautiful, because I love you too much”) the kind that threatens to tear your heart in two, even if everything is fine, especially if everything is fine. Some songs on 69 Love Songs show romantic love as a kind of religious mania, where the object of your affections seems like a deity. This one shows what it feels and looks like when you are inside that experience, where love becomes a type of spiritual devotion.
2. “The Book of Love”
Merritt makes great use of his sonorous voice to authoritatively put forth a kind of manifesto, as he’s called it, for _69 Love Song_s. As manifestos go, this one is unusually enchanting. Every idea in the song is irresistible. The notion of The Book of Love is where music comes from is wonderful and pushes things into the realm of magic realism. You have to imagine this encyclopedia of the heart, which contains such wonders, as something that could not possibly exist in the physical world, but what if it did? Who wrote this Book of Love? It might be mostly boring, but who wouldn’t at least like to get a peek at a few of those things “we’re all too young to know?” The heart of the song however is the contrast between the conceit of all the tricky charts and instructions in the titular compendium with the simplicity of the melody itself and of the uncomplicated emotion it conveys.
1. “Papa Was a Rodeo”
Most reasonable people can agree that this song is the best on 69 Love Songs. It’s in the running for title of “only believable love story of the 20th century.” It’s the kind of song that nearly everyone secretly but fervently believes is their song, even though no one’s papa was actually a rodeo. The only people who aren’t like this are the ones who loudly and jealously declare it to be their song. It’s best not to argue with them.