Bring ‘not an album’ pleaded Nick. To me that sounded dangerously close to an invitation to bring another personal grab-bag compilation. I thought about bringing a rubber duck instead, but I’m out of practice, and anyway, for a while I’ve been wondering how it might be possible, indeed whether it would be wise, to bring ’69 Love Songs’ to Record Club.
Even as someone who has forced my fellow clubsters through the hellish collapsing drones of Sunn O))), the abrasive electronic power tools of emptyset and the exquisite hyper-extension of ‘Disintegration Loops’, the thought of playing a joker and making them sit through the whole of this 1999 album seems, well, a bit much.
That’s not to suggest that it’s a difficult or testing listen. Far, far from it. One of the most striking things about the collection is just how easily it slips across the ears. Sure, some of the tracks are sub-60 seconds, and there’s a marginally higher-than-average percentage of ukulele-strummed numbers, but nothing on the record feels like it was dashed off just to provide one more tick in Stephin Merrit’s self-created quest to write 69 love songs. Take any selection of 12-15 of these songs, jumble them up and you’d have a perfectly delightful album. That Merrit chose not to do that and instead to put what for most other musicians would equate to a career’s worth of music onto one single release, is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this project.
Understandably, variety is key. There are twirling whirlers like ‘Absolutely Cuckoo’, mournful waltzes like ‘I Don’t Believe In The Sun’, campfire ballads like ‘All My Little Words’, charming metaphorical foot-tappers like (trust me) ‘Chicken With Its Head Cut Off’, oblique geographical allegory’s like ‘Reno, Dakota’ and perfectly weighted indie pop like ‘I Don’t Want To Get Over You’. All in the first 6 tracks.
The rest of the record lays out an almost endless banquet of all things in between, from the heartfelt to the pastiche, from experimental digressions to direct hits. Throughout Merritt displays his cool wit and sophistication, and mastery of those disparate styles he chooses to adopt. He has famously said that “’69 Love Songs’ is not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.” That’s a cute point, but it just about holds. There’s a knowing distance maintained as he sings about how we sing about the way we feel about being in love, either never approaching his own heart or, if in fact he does, hiding it very well.
’69 Love Songs’ is comfortably the longest album I own, clocking in at a good 50 minutes (e.g. another full-length album) longer than ‘Have One On Me’. It feels to me like one of the great occluded landmarks of modern alternative music, a record most people know exists but few have journeyed to see. That’s a shame. It wears its conceptual foundation very lightly. I’ve never listened to the whole thing in one sitting, but rather than a feat of sheer quantity, it’s the consistency and care that comes over each time. ’69 Love Songs’ could have been a dumping ground. Instead it’s a treasure trove.
Tom listened: Although we listened to 69 Love Songs from Graham’s ever more distant dining table, I managed to hear enough to be intrigued. After all, I didn’t get Jens Lekman’s ‘Oh You’re So Silent, Jens’ at all on first listen and that ended up being one of my top listens of the decade. And so, listening to one third of 69 Love Songs and hearing many echoes of Mr Lekman (in fact Karen guessed it was Jens upon stumbling into the house half way through) and really liking it very much indeed, it struck me that 69 Love Songs could be the biggest single treasure trove of music available, especially if the songs endure as well as those by his Scandinavian soundalike. Lashings of Okkervil River too, which is no bad thing in my book. But, don’t forget, this pre-dates both, and maybe was the blueprint for a sound and modus-operandi that was quite prevalent throughout the noughties.
But, for me, the most impressive feature of 69 Love Songs is that it really doesn’t sound at all like it should. I always imagined that this would be like an elongated bed-fellow of Alien Lanes or The Commercial Album; charmingly messy with gems appearing every so often, peaking through the chaos; attention deficit disorder indie. That couldn’t be further from truth. These songs are fully formed, laboured over. Time has been spent getting them ‘right’. It’s a monumental effort and one that would, surely, have left Stephin Merrit thinking ‘where do I go from here’. I have no idea what he did before or next. And, unfortunately for him, I imagine that those who own 69 Love Songs probably think that this is more than enough Magnetic Fields for one lifetime (and I mean this as a statement of fact rather than, in any way, a criticism).