In retrospect, it’s astonishing how long it took the world to notice The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. When the 3-disc magnum opus dropped in 1999, Stephin Merritt and Co. were already famous, but only on the Lower East Side and, for the unconverted, the project had an unmistakable air of hubristic folly about it. Word spread slowly that this was more than just a gimmick, that this man could really write songs, but it took about two years for the buzz to reach critical mass. Then suddenly, everyone was talking about Stephin Merritt, even if all they could think to say (over and over again) was that he wrote songs like Cole Porter. In 2002, Merritt was invited to play the entire set of 69 Love Songs at Lincoln Center, as part of its Great American Songbook series. At about the same time, he was signed to Nonesuch records, home to a staggering roster of classical, jazz and pop aristocracy. That made it official: Stephin Merritt was no longer a lowly indie-rocker, he was a pop auteur, a Great American Genius.
So here it is, Stephin Merritt’s first Nonesuch release, the soundtrack for Pieces of April, the movie about Katie Holmes with green hair. And here’s the problem: it’s only 26 minutes long, and 14 of those minutes are previously released and already owned by any good Magnetic Fields fan. There are three songs here from 69 Love Songs, “Epitaph For My Heart,” “I Think I Need A New Heart,” and “The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side.” These are three good songs, but far from the best 69 has to offer. There are also two songs from the album Hyacinths and Thistles by one of Merritt’s other projects The 6ths. “As You Turn To Go,” sung by Momus, is a beautiful, hazy love song, and “You You You You You” features the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Katherine Whalen at her least irritating.
That leaves five previously unreleased songs, of which only one, the gorgeous ukelele and harmonium love song “One April Day,” actually appeared in the film. The other four songs, all billed to Magnetic Fields, skew towards the synth-pop side of Merritt’s work, and raise high hopes for the upcoming Magnetic Fields full-length. “All I Want To Know” is a typically clever, broken-hearted love song that ranks with Merritt’s best, while “Heather Heather” features some amusingly tinkly, brilliant production over lines like “Heather Heather, we belong together / Like sex and violence; like death and silence.” These songs also serve as a reminder that Merritt’s songs are best when he sings them himself. His deadpan baritone warble has acquired a marvelous personality—heart-broken and depressed, while still articulate and dazzlingly clever, but profoundly unimpressed and bored with his own cleverness. But despite some brilliant new songs, this is a misguided release by Nonesuch. They should have put out an EP of just the new material, or else waited for the Magnetic Fields full-length. As it is, this is a worthwhile purchase for die-hard fans, especially at the low price it’s being sold at. Everyone else should wait until next spring, or—if they haven’t already—go out and buy 69 Love Songs.