Encountering Magnetic Fields' '69 Love Songs' for the first time

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Magnetic Fields '69 Love Songs'
Magnetic Fields '69 Love Songs' was originally released on September 7, 1999 on Merge Records (Courtesy Merge Records)

In the summer of 2004, I got my first debit card, which meant I could start placing orders off Amazon. This was how I was able to find stuff that my local Best Buy wouldn't stock, like the Flamin' Groovies' Shake Some Action or Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything?, so I was able to check off a lot of boxes for stuff I'd been curious about. Another such album on my list was the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, if only for the sheer daunting sprawl (I was into those sort of challenges in my early 20s, ordering stuff like John Updike's entire Rabbit series condensed into one volume, with the intention that I'd polish it all off and impress a nonzero number of college friends.) Every copy of 69 Love Songs seemed to be retailing around the same price — $29.99 — so I dug around the used section and found a copy for $20. Why wouldn't anyone order it at prices like this?! So a couple of weeks went by, with no sign of 69 Love Songs arriving at my house. I finally logged in to check the status of the shipment, checked the seller's page, only to see a deluge of 1-star reviews of people complaining that their order had never arrived, and the seller had stolen their money. This was the first and only time I've ever had to fill out the fraud report on Amazon or any other shipping service, and to their credit they refunded my $20 in fairly prompt fashion. I had my money back, but I also did not have 69 Love Songs, and by the time I went back to Morris for my junior year a few days later, it soon disappeared from my mind's eye.

Several months later: February 2005. I'm in the office of our college radio station, KUMM, one day, probably working on typing up a morning newscast. At this point, my memory fails me as to the exact sequence, which in itself reinforces the absurd circumstances under which the album finally came into my possession, but the following two things happened — I don't remember which came first and which came second, but they both happened:

A.) A folder appears on the shared computer in the office that is clearly labeled '69 Love Songs' and has 69 mp3s in the folder.

B.) Three burned CDs appear on the desk in the office that are each clearly labeled '69 Love Songs' with a respective volume number.

Either the burned discs were brought into the studio and then transferred onto the computer, or the mp3s were brought onto the computer and then burned onto the discs. I have no recollection of which came first, but in any case, I wound up bringing in three of my own blank discs and burned each volume of 69 Love Songs onto its own disc, whether from the computer or from the CD burner we had in the back studio that was clearly labelled 'NOT FOR THE USE OF BURNING COPIES OF ALBUMS'. But now I had them, each disc labelled in green Sharpie with its respective volume number, and I could go back to my dorm and listen for the first time.

I carved out an entire evening to listen to 69 Love Songs in its entirety, in one sitting. As per usual, there was no schoolwork or academic progress that I could or should have been focusing on instead; there was no reading or studying I was ignoring at its expense, nope, none whatsoever. I even hopped on AIM to announce that I was listening to a three-hour album from five years ago, and all my friends were obviously very impressed. It was a daunting listening experience, and ultimately an exhausting one: one maxim that became immediately apparent is that the most difficult listening experience with 69 Love Songs is the first. It is an entirely new topography that you are feeling out in real time; the patterns and rhythms have not yet cemented themselves in your head, so the rolling reaction upon that first listen is basically alternating "wow." or "what was that?" for three hours. The final note of "Zebra" hit and you step it up a notch, saying "wow, what was THAT?" and you immediately fret that you'll never have the wherewithal, intelligence, time, or will to ever navigate those three discs ever again. Maybe this was an experience, and an album, that didn't live up to the hype. Maybe.

Diving into three one-hour volumes presents hurdles for any music listener, let alone a busy college junior who is trying to focus on everything in the world at once except his actual studies. Throwing each disc into a CD player felt like feeling around a darkened room that nevertheless has treasures hidden everywhere, but you still need to put in the effort to find them. The road map, that cypher, wound up presenting itself in the form of one of the technological marvels that would pop up every few months in 2004-05. New wonders like debit cards, Facebook, texting, and Wikipedia had already come down the road, and now our concurrent embrace of iTunes came into the picture. My roommate Jon and I had downloaded iTunes so that we could redeem the free downloads from Mountain Dew bottles, and for a few weeks our libraries consisted of just a half dozen songs or so. Then one of us got the bright idea that maybe we could try importing a CD through our computer, and sure enough! the entire album popped up as a series of .m4as. The machine works! The golden egg had just fallen out from under the goose. Jon and I spent the next several days, usually in stretches of 12-16 hours at a time, importing our entire CD collections one by one. 69 Love Songs, of course, was included in the ripping churn and wound up there in the library with everything else.

Stephin Merritt has noted on numerous occasions that he fully expects everyone to enjoy some of the 69 Love Songs more than others, and he expects listeners to condense the record down to their own favorites. In the liner notes to the album (which none of us had, mind you, and would not come into contact with for years), Merritt and collaborator Daniel Handler are particularly obsessed with programming a CD player to play back certain songs in a certain sequence, so you could enjoy your favorite cuts without having to navigate with a remote or a skip button.

Listening off the burned CDs, there were no liner notes to follow along with. The means of keeping track of which song was playing was looking at the number on the CD player and correlating it with the track listing on the Amazon page. (Wikipedia had not yet established dominance in this realm.) In iTunes, everything was suddenly cast into focus: you could *see* which song you were playing, you could *see* where you were in the track listing, and you could *see* where these songs were positioned as opposed to their counterparts. As Merritt would expect, my own favorites soon emerged: "A Chicken with Its Head Cut Off," "The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing," "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure." There were canonical favorites that it was clear everybody else loved too, like "The Book of Love" and "Papa Was a Rodeo," and then you'd also get curious and click through to a song that maybe didn't have as high a spin count, like "How to Say Goodbye," and it would feel like you were the first person ever to unearth it. You'd skip around in the track listing, shuffling them up against themselves and with popular new records of the time, like LCD Soundsystem's debut or Brian Wilson's SMiLE. Gradually, but surely, 69 Love Songs began to coalesce in my mind.

Nobody knew the original source of the discs and/or the mp3 files that had showed up at KUMM one day. Who knew how many generations of source files they had been transferred through to get to that point, to say nothing of the multiple bounces it took for them to wind up as .m4as on our desktop computers. So many of the songs as we knew them were marked by defects. There was a skip at the end of "The Way You Say Good-Night," and I can still hear it clearly in my brain the same way you would remember a specific skip on a beloved LP. Volume Three was the most compromised: starting with "Bitter Tears," there were several songs that would play the first fraction of a second, followed by an audio cutout in the range of half a second to a full second, then the rest of the song would play normally. This defect appeared on five songs in a seven-song stretch — "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" and "Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin" remained thankfully intact. At the very end of the disc, some songs became enveloped by a sort of static hissing, as though the songs themselves were physically degrading. Hearing "Xylophone Track" crackling and popping, as if straining to be heard, only added to the ambience of reaching the finish line of an endurance test of an album. It got to the point where when years later, and I finally got the box set proper, it was almost disappointing to hear these songs playing out in their "normal" state.

Stephin Merritt has said that 69 Love Songs is not an album about love, it is an album about love songs. Similarly, the ground I've covered in this essay has been about the mechanical workings of the album within my own brain, as opposed to the emotional resonance that every song came to eventually occupy. This is probably for the best, because while yes, I associate many of these songs with specific human beings, nobody wants to read about that. Everybody draws their own emotional connections with the music of 69 Love Songs, in their own unique fashion, to tie in with their own personal history. It's part of the reason why I think listmaking like "The 69 Love Songs, Ranked" are exercises in futility: the only possible endgame is that you either wind up peeved that someone is not giving due reverence to "Sweet-Lovin' Man" or you are validated that someone else shares your take on "The One You Really Love," or both, and then you return to the realm of your own opinions. 69 Love Songs is its own genre of music, and its existence on its own plane would seem to transcend the trappings of fitting its songs into any type of hierarchy.

I will conclude with two vital points.

1.) There is no "filler" on 69 Love Songs. Each song takes on its own stylistic slant on the composition of a love song, and, yes, its own slant on love. These songs dare us to examine our own histories with relationships, romance, sex, and love. Who among us can look at our lives and say, "Yes, my love life has been Purple Rain: 9 songs, all killer, no filler, all masterpieces" and who would then turn to 69 Love Songs as a mirror for something a little more scattershot? In any case, there's 69 songs because that's how many Stephin Merritt wanted there to be, not because he wanted to "fill" it, which leads us to...

2.) Yes! The name of the album is 69 Love Songs! It has the number 69 in it. Merritt originally wanted to write 100 tunes — something he alludes to explicitly in "(Crazy for You But) Not That Crazy)" but dialed it down to 69 because it was evenly divisible by three, presented unique opportunities for artwork design, and, yes, lol. Stephin Merritt is keenly aware of the ~*implications*~ of the number 69, and would seem to wryly welcome any creative angles in discussion of the record. However, if he had known in 1999 that two decades of pop culture would funnel all these creative angles on 69 into that one, single word response, he'd probably let out his signature heavy sigh, and do his signature motion of holding his hand over his face, as I thrillingly got to see him do in real life during the one time I've seen the Magnetic Fields perform, at the State Theatre in 2008. It would have annoyed him to no end, but he also seems like the type of fellow who could stand to be annoyed every once in a while.

69 Love Songs has enjoyed making us miserable for 20 years, found peace of mind in playing on our fears. May the next 20 years be as equally nice.

How did you first encounter 69 Love Songs?


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