Monday, October 5, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #139 - Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs Vol. 1

Once upon a time in the 90’s there was this place in New York City called the Lower East Side. Along with its neighboring area, The East Village, it presented itself as an eccentric haven for artists, hipsters, punks, and bohemians of all stripes. Don’t go looking for it now because it’s been transformed into something else, but back then it was a land of dive bars, of art galleries, of weird little stores and great, cheap restaurants, a place that had a sketchy energy that’s totally gone now. And Stephin Merritt, the leader, songwriter, and primary vocalist for The Magnetic Fields, in the liner notes to the 69 Love Songs box set also calls the Lower East Side “the epicenter of songwriting history in the 20th century” – mainly due to the fact that Irving Berlin grew up there. And that’s a connection that resonates throughout the works of The Magnetic Fields – though the band recorded on the North Carolina indie rock label Merge, Merritt’s group is more an heir to the lineage of songwriters like Berlin and Cole Porter than part of the scene of indie rock and pop of label mates like Superchuck, Spoon, or even the artier Arcade Fire.

And though the magical wonderland that was the Lower East Side is gone now, The Magnetic Fields have left behind a document of that time and particularly of the people who populated it – the 3CD set 69 Love Songs. Merritt is quick to distinguish that only some of these songs are “true” songs – meaning that they’re about his own lived experience – but they’re most assuredly true in the sense that even if he hasn’t lived them, someone has. His characters bounce around this wonderland trying to connect, looking for love in 69 different ways (only 23 of which are, of course, documented on Vol. 1), many of them sad and bleak, which is Merritt’s métier, but all of them also imbued with a droll and deadpan sense of humor that keeps the songs out of the realms of the overly dolorous. For example, in “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” one of his lovers is unable to find a suitable object of romance since a breakup and notes “The Moon to whom the poets croon/has given up and died” which could easily pass for a couplet from some Goth band’s oeuvre, but then he adds (drolly and drily): “Astronomy
will have to be revised,” a line that would never occur to the gloom merchants. Similarly, “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” is hardly any kind of normal love song fare, but it’s part and parcel of The Magnetic Fields’ world. Musically speaking, Merritt handles synthesizer and ukulele duties, along with a number of other more obscure instruments he doesn’t list, while his cohorts appear on the more conventional support of piano, guitar, drums, banjo, cello and other instruments. And then there are the guests – friends picked up in and around the Lower East Side of the time brought in to contribute to the scene report herein. Some of them Merritt found in other bands, others working the door of bars he frequented – both of which are true of Dudley Klute, who contributes the entire set’s finest vocal performance in “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” (also noted in the lyrics as “the ugliest guy on the Lower East Side” who happens to have an edge on the competition because he’s got a car). The guests add variety to make the set what it is – Merritt’s own dolorous baritone is cut with other voices beyond even those of other members of The Magnetic Fields to make the funniest, catchiest, and far and away the best album ever essayed by this talented group.

Normally, we avoid recommending pricy
collections and films in I’d Love to Turn You On. Who are we to, on the strength of our words alone, suggest that you should drop 20 or 30 bucks sound-unheard on a record or movie? We try to keep it reasonable and cheap. But that, and only that, is the reason I’m recommending Vol. 1, rather than the entire 3CD set, which is really the proper way to experience this music (plus you get a great booklet with a lengthy interview with Stephin Merritt detailing each track). I count 12 great songs of the 23 included on this disc, with the other 11 ranging from amusing to very good. And it includes “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” which is the greatest song of the entire set. Well, except maybe for “Papa Was a Rodeo” (one of Merritt’s faux-country tunes later covered by Bright Eyes, Kelly Hogan, and The Magic Numbers, among others) or “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” (critic Robert Christgau’s favorite). Really – if you have the slightest interest, you’ll need the whole set, but if you want to dip your toes in to test the water first, Vol. 1 has the highest concentration of greats – Vol. 2 and 3 each count 10 great ones for me, though your personal mileage may vary. The whole thing is never less than entertaining, often far better than that, and great for 30 songs (by my count) out of 69, which as a batting average is better than the greatest hitter ever in MLB. Additionally, due to popular demand, Merge is reissuing the set in a limited 10”vinyl box set on November 6th, so you vinyl enthusiasts should mark your calendars.

            - Patrick Brown

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