The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs is a long album, a three-disc set. On first listening, some of the songs grab you immediately, some float pleasantly by, and some annoy you. Try to excerpt the album, though—make a playlist or mix CD of just your favorite tracks—and you’ll find editing kills it. The songs you love just aren’t as good without the songs that annoy you, and the more you listen to the album, the more you’ll find yourself coming to love the songs you used to hate, and finding depths of emotion in the songs that used to bore you. It’s an album that you love like a person: as a whole, the sweet along with the sour, the imperfection along with the perfection.
The set’s stature has steadily risen since its 1999 release, and while it will never be Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper or Nevermind—it doesn’t aspire to the historical significance of those albums—I think it will eventually become a mainstay of even the shortest all-time best album lists. It’s certainly my personal favorite album of all time, and I know that doesn’t make me at all unique.
Tonight at First Avenue in Minneapolis, dozens of artists are going to perform 69 Love Songs in its entirety; a complete cover version of the album, with 69 Minnesota artists covering the songs, can be downloaded for free at 69ls.mn. There have been cover projects in many media around the world, because Stephin Merritt’s songs are ripe for reinterpretation. It’s not that the originals are lacking, it’s that Merritt writes and records in a manner that never feels definitive. I don’t expect it’s meant to.
The Magnetic Fields include both male and female vocalists, and both on record and in concert they trade the songs among themselves, never switching the pronouns’ genders. Merritt is gay, but the point of this approach isn’t just to “queer” his band’s music, it’s to render it universal. Whether Merritt’s writing about love, lust, or loss, his approach argues that ultimately it doesn’t matter what parts are getting stuck where; what matters is whose heart is getting stuck to—and unstuck from—whose.
Further, Merritt and the other Magnetic Fields vocalists sing in a distinctly affectless manner. They hit their notes precisely and without flourish, giving their performances a sense of innocence that helps to leaven Merritt’s lyrics, which are almost too witty for their own good. (“It’s making me blue/ Pantone 292.”) One of the great pleasures of the Minnesota cover set is hearing all those different artists play with phrasing in a way the Magnetic Fields don’t; it doesn’t feel like a violation, because who’s to say what’s the right way to sing about love?
The epic scope of 69 Love Songs doesn’t just leave room for an unusually large number of great songs, it’s central to the album’s greatness. 69 songs is enough to examine love in a vast number of permutations, and by the end you’re left both exhausted and exhilarated. Why are so many songs about love? 69 Love Songs answers that question: because it’s the one subject that’s inexhaustible, and essential. The joke of the title makes plain that Merritt doesn’t intend to take himself too seriously, though of course he also does take himself very seriously. If that sounds like a irreconcilable contradiction, you’ve never been in love.