Over the past month or so, I've heard one question over and over:
Some 28 acts are listed for the four-night extravaganza at Cat's Cradle (which kicked off Wednesday night), and there will also be unannounced "special guests." But Merge has not let on about who is playing what night. So inquiring minds want to know who is playing when -- and also if Merge's biggest act will put in an appearance as one of the unnamed ringers. I still don't know. But I do know that if Arcade Fire does turn up, they'll have to do a lot to top Magnetic Fields, the highlight of an all-around fine opening night.
It was a perfect little 40-minute slice of chamber-pop elegance, long on charm -- especially when a large winged insect chased Claudia Gonson from her keyboard -- and also songs from Magnetic Fields' epochal 1999 box set, "69 Love Songs." Everytime I see Magnetic Fields, it's a fresh reminder of just how freakin' brilliant a lyricist Stephin Merritt is. Nobody does doomed romance better, and I don't think I'll ever hear "All My Little Words" without getting a lump in my throat. Last night was no exception.
You said you were in love with me
Both of us know that that's impossible
And I could make you rue the day
But I could never make you stay
Not for all the tea in China
Not if I could sing like a bird
Not for all North Carolina
Not for all my little words.
The set's only flaw was it was just too short. So I'm spending today bingeing on "69 Love Songs," an album I've not listened to nearly enough in recent years -- and right now I'm wondering why the heck why not. Below is the review I wrote when it first came out. Meanwhile, XX Merge continues through this weekend.
Whole lotta love
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Nov. 7, 1999
Sometimes, the most profound questions are the simplest. Such as the one that the one-hit-wonder group the Monotones pondered back in 1957:
Well I wonder wonder who-ooh-ooh-ooh-ohh [BOMP]
Who wrote the book of love?
Forty-two years later, the answer is finally clear: Stephin Merritt, mastermind behind the New York low-fi art-pop band Magnetic Fields, is the author of the book of love. The Monotones' "Book of Love" stopped at a mere four chapters comprising a single verse. But Merritt offers up a veritable Old Testament's worth of thoughts on the subject of love on Magnetic Fields' new magnum opus, "69 Love Songs," the first multidisc album in the 10-year history of Chapel Hill's Merge Records.
Multidisc albums occupy a unique station in popular music, the ultimate attention-getting gimmick. From the Beatles' "The White Album" to Notorious B.I.G.'s posthumous "Life After Death," you know you're getting a big, grandiose, potentially epitaph-caliber "Artistic Statement" whenever an album involves more than one piece of plastic.
Especially when, in the case of "69 Love Songs," it involves not just two but three pieces of plastic. That's not entirely unprecedented, but not even Prince's 1996 three-disc set "Emancipation" was quite this ambitious -- or as obsessively, dementedly single-minded.
With three discs at 23 songs each, "69 Love Songs" is an old-fashioned concept album about Topic A, this thing called love. It's not sequenced with any decipherable narrative arc, probably because that would be too pat. Instead, "69 Love Songs" is more like a real-world love affair with all its awkward moments, careening wildly between moods, styles, genres and genders with a near-whiplash effect. In Merritt's hands, the book of love is a partial history of pop music that covers pure pop, folk, twangy country, Irish balladry, show tunes and electronic dance music.
It also includes a song called "The Book of Love," of which Merritt sings, "The book of love is long and boring/No one can lift the damn thing." In this context, the unwieldy size and sprawl of "69 Love Songs" is a major part of the concept. The album is a doomed romantic gesture along the lines of driving 1,000 miles for a dinner date, or building the Taj Mahal. When Merritt declaims that he's "crazy for you but not that crazy," one is tempted to retort, "Oh, yes, you are."
All three of these discs are available separately, but after a dozen listens, I can't single out any single volume as significantly better or worse than the other two. Besides, "69 Love Songs" makes sense only as a glorious, excessive whole, one in which dud songs are a key part of its ebb and flow. As such, the bad ones are intentionally, hilariously awful (especially the beat poetry parody "Love Is Like Jazz"). But for every lousy song, you'll find a half-dozen stellar ones that hit and stick.
Well over half these songs register right off the bat. Most of them are catchy; even more are brilliantly written. For quick-tongued, acidic cleverness, nobody this side of Elvis Costello can touch Merritt's lyrics: "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." It also takes a special genius to rhyme the title subject of "Reno Dakota" with iota, quota and Nino Rota -- or Ferdinand de Saussure with kosher and Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Like Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown, Magnetic Fields is Merritt and whoever else he's playing with. Merritt's lugubriously wounded croon is the ensemble's most identifiable sound. But his voice is an acquired taste, and 69 straight songs of his singing might be enough to finish off anybody. Wisely, Merritt parcels out a good bit of the singing to four other vocalists, giving "69 Love Songs" the feeling of an ensemble cast. Claudia Gonson especially shines on "Washington, D.C." with a cheerleader-type chorus you'll find yourself humming for days.
Many of these songs detail romantic misadventures as painfully funny as anything you've heard from Loudon Wainwright III. Few of them are anything like cheery. More typical is "How [expletive] Romantic," on which guest singer Dudley Klute assumes a blank voice to sneer, "How [expletive] romantic, must we really waltz? Drag another cliche howling from the vaults."
Cynical? Well, yes and no. Because what "69 Love Songs" really reveals, ironically enough, is the depth of the auteur Merritt's blind optimism. Although he knows it's destined to end badly, Merritt just can't help falling in love with you.
So fall in love with him and his "69 Love Songs" right back, boys and girls. It's the hopelessly romantic thing to do.