Published Mar 01, 2000Every music-obsessed geek has been susceptible to this belittling phrase, meant to imply that to be lost in song is to be a lost soul, removed from reality. And the worst part is that we you and I, that is, we're in this together know that this much is, sadly, true.
In the past few months, indie pop music geeks, both critics and fans, have united to praise the opus 3CD set 69 Love Songs, by Stephin Merritt and his project the Magnetic Fields. There are several reasons this sexy MF record has struck more than three chords with a chorus of chronic obsessives: a) it's a 3CD set, complete with book (nuff said); b) it's a concept record, a song cycle devoted to the art of the love song; c) its mainstream obscurity, making it a well-kept secret with that ever-ridiculous indie cred; and d) its absurd and ambitious brilliance. The music, lyrics and arrangements waver between undeniable greatness and a self-deflating ridiculousness, which mocks the project's pretensions while elevating it at the same time. It's a towering monument to vintage pop songwriting, with all the inherent artifice and art, frivolity and intelligence that such a project implies.
But I suspect there's a slightly darker side to why this odd little project hits home. By writing fantastical songs from every obtuse angle about the most universal human emotion, Merritt has over-intellecutalised it and therefore rendered it entirely fictional. His love songs are a fey fantasy, tailor-made to pull the heartstrings of listeners who have ever made a mixed tape for a lover instead of writing a letter, people who habitually hide behind other people's lyrics and stories to supplement their own emotions. Guilty as charged.
Even though Merritt's work excited me like few other things last year, it felt embarrassing to share that enthusiasm with other people. The whole thing seems too ridiculous too honest and too artificial at the same time, and by admitting that these techno-pop/ukulele-and-marimba torch songs had touched me somehow was a little frightening. What does it mean that I can relate to Merritt's country song with the chorus, "My heart's running around/ Like a chicken with its head cut off'? (An image matched only by a Johnny Cash title on the recently remastered Live at Folsom Prison: "Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart.") Oh, the honesty's too much. Which recalls another one of Merritt's best lines: "No one will ever love you honestly/ No one will ever love you for your honesty."
And so like some earlier dalliances I won't get into my torrid affair with Merritt is confined to my car. All 69 love songs (well, maybe 63 of them, because like in life, there are a few duds) come in handy for my frequent commute, during that time of day when singing pop songs and avoiding the occasional reckless driver are the only things to distract you from sitting like a lump, over-analysing your hapless love life. Merritt allows me to combine the two, with his motley crew of androgynous moongazers, neurotic ninnies and un-boyfriend-able fuck-ups, in a three-hour litany of wilting flowers, "long-forgotten fairytales," and every possible simile and metaphor for a lover's eyes.
"Do you think it's dangerous," Merritt asks in song, "to have Busby Berkeley dreams?" In the interest of emotional health, I'm wondering if it's time to put that record away for a while. I have, however, bought another copy to give to an old campus radio flame as part of a wedding gift. Unlike the mixed tapes I used to make for them, I don't mean for them to read anything into Merritt's lyrics; it's for their aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment only. Especially because they've got a life and found real love, and I'm still searching in pop songs.