Out There

Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs, Vols. 1-3
(Merge Records)

A single album would have sufficed -- one today, another next month, another next year, if only to digest the first 23 songs without choking to death on the remaining 46. Still, though you can purchase each volume separately, it's too tempting to collect the whole series at once, then sit down and listen to how each disc fits together like love ("Love is like jazz/You make it up as you go along") and marriage ("I'll linger here/Your ring upon my finger dear") and divorce ("Are you out of love with me? Are you longing to be free?"). Stephin Merritt always has been the tragic romantic, the sensitive sad-sack in love with love -- and the pain that accompanies failed, doomed, tragic amour. What better avenue through which to express his pain and pleasure and pleasurable pain than frail, fragile, and fearless pop? If only the man had budget enough to employ strings and things, rather than be forced to flesh out his dinky Casio compositions with cello and accordion.

You have to wonder where Merritt goes from here, since 69 Love Songs says it all, over and over again: Love ain't worth it, except when you need it, even for a few seconds (or: "There's an hour of sunshine/for a million years of rain"). Merritt sounds more and more like a Motown fetishist stuck in the body of Morrissey performing Bacharach-David songs on Kraftwerk's garage-sale equipment -- save for the moments when he has others, male and female, sing his booksmart words. By turns hushed ("Acoustic Guitar," "My Sentimental Melody") and harsh (especially on "I'm Sorry I Love You," which rhymes with "it's just a phase I'm going through," which makes it the best rock-and-roll couplet since, well, ever), these songs have been around for decades in bits and pieces; Merritt only picks up the detritus, glues it together, and presents the whole shebang as brand-new. You may not remember one song out of the 69, but the sum total is devastating -- for some, living through a record is like living through a relationship, every apparently meaningless second adding up to a what-the-fuck whole.

Sometimes, there's no music at all ("How Fucking Romantic," "Roses"); sometimes, the songs exist only as blink-and-miss-it fragments (the plinked-out new wave of "Punk Rock Love"). And though Merritt goes overboard when it comes to metaphors ("a pretty girl is like a minstrel show"; love is like jazz or a bottle of gin, when it's not wrapped around your heart like a boa constrictor; and so forth), he still manages to turn desperation into a most beautiful reason to love someone. He's always begging, pleading, offering, but never quite getting. The perfect record(s) to fall in, and out, of love to.

Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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