“I was sitting in a piano bar, enjoying a sidecar or Pimm’s or something,” Stephin Merritt says in 69 Love Songs' liner notes. “And I had read earlier that day, Virgil Thompson I think, commenting on Charles Ives’ songbook of 114 songs of all kinds, and what a monument it was, and I thought, well, I could do something like that.” He wanted to get into writing musicals. He knew he wrote good love songs. Why not do a hundred of them? The Magnetic Fields singer-songwriter had his challenge.
Merritt first envisioned what would become the group’s sixth album as a staged musical revue—entertaining, but requiring no real narrative—where he’d host non-singers trading off songs in a cabaret competition of sorts. The performer who garnered the best audience reaction would get paid at the end of the night. He spent the next year writing the songs, usually over tea at St. Dymphna's pub in New York’s East Village, and recording them, often in his apartment, with four other vocalists and a rotating crew of musicians (including Daniel Handler, an amateur accordionist from San Francisco who was just beginning his own multi-volume writing project: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events).
What Merritt ended up with is both a survey of 20th-century popular music—which conveniently landed at the very end of that century—and one of the most ambitious album projects of all time. The sheer amount of music across this triple-length LP is impressive, but more importantly it’s where Merritt proved himself as a peerless craftsperson. Inspired by the eclecticism of folk singer Judy Collins’ In My Life (Merritt thought Bob Dylan’s approach—strumming and singing—was a bit blasé), no two tracks sound even remotely alike. The stylistic range—Brill Building pop, earnest balladry, heartbroken country, ’80s electro-pop, banjo-plucked folk, grandly arranged piano show tunes, unadorned vocal showcases, arch punk and experimental—is riveting. And if you don’t like a track, you rarely have to wait more than a couple of minutes to sample something entirely different. But chances are, the cleverness—the playfulness, the intricacy, the specificity, the interplay—of the lyrics will get you.
These aren’t really love songs—they're songs about love songs. Or, if they’re about love at all, it’s a lack thereof. “The book of love is long and boring/No one can lift the damn thing/It’s full of charts and facts and figures/And instructions for dancing,” goes the opening dissection of “The Book of Love” before it finds any hint of tenderness. Others never do: You can only take pity on “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” who’s actually "the ugliest guy on the Lower East Side" trying to woo his crush with the offer of a car ride to some unknown destination. "How F*****g Romantic,” backed only by finger snaps, eviscerates a crummy partner and old Broadway tropes, while calling out Rodgers & Hart by name. “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” is a lusty metaphor underpinned by OMD-style synth-pop. And “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off” takes what Merritt thought was the only remaining cliché that hadn’t been turned into a country tune and jokingly turns it into one. (Its last line: “Who’d fall in love with a chicken with its head cut off?/It ain’t pretty.”) Few collections of so-called love songs ever concerned themselves so much with the behaviors of barnyard animals.
One would think that somewhere throughout these 172 and a half minutes, the songs' complexity would falter, that the album would collapse under its own fanciful, hyper-literate weight. It doesn’t. From the opening line, “Don’t fall in love with me yet,” until its closing commentary on a lover’s greed, "I want a zebra,” it’s the work of a true master in his element. Sure, longer collections, or more gimmicky concepts, have been released since, but none can match the depth, wit, rigor, and skill with which 69 Love Songs was written. Ironically, the only person to achieve a similar feat since is…Stephin Merritt. 2017’s almost-as-sprawling 50 Song Memoir explores, year by year, the first five decades of one of modern music's most inventive artists' fascinatingly odd time on Earth.