Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Tradition, Tradition! : 69 Love Songs on Valentine’s Day

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 14, 2007

At three I went to Hebrew School, at ten I learned a trade

Though it’s rarely anything but depressing, part of me still definitely likes Valentine’s Day, if only because it’s one of the two days a year where I’m guaranteed to feel genuine emotion (the other being my birthday, June 23rd in case you want to buy me a six-pack or something). It’s not very nice emotion–usually a mix of loneliness, regret, nostalgia and self-pity–but it’s legitimate, and writers don’t get too many chances to feel legitimate emotion. It reminds me that I’m at least partly human, which is nice to be reminded of from time to time.

Since 2001, when I heard it for the first time, my soundtrack to Valentine’s Day has been The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. For the rare bunch of you left out there who haven’t been persuaded to listen to it yet from one corner or another, 69 Love Songs is the brainchild of Field mastermind Stephen Merritt, who released it as a three-disc box set in 1999. It’s exactly what it says it is–69 songs about love, in one form of another, spread out 23 songs for each disc. And it’s arguably the greatest artistic accomplishment of the 21st century.

The thing that always impressed me the most about 69 Love Songs is the scope. It tries to cover everything, and for the most part it succeeds. That includes:

  • Perspective. Boys sing about girls, boys sing about boys, girls sing about boys, girls sing about girls, boys sing about animals, girls sing about musical instruments, boys pretend to be girls singing about boys, girls pretend to be boys singing about girls, and so forth. No gender, orientation or identity crisis is left out.
  • Subject matter. Songs about first love, last love, passionate love, autumnal love, unrequited love, undesired love, impossible love, unnecessary love, lost love, how wonderful love is, how horrible love is, how novel love is, how difficult love is, how irritating love is, how cliched love is, how important love is and how stupid love is. Songs about being still crazy after these years, and songs about being actually crazy after all these years, songs about love making you want to die and songs about love making you want to live. There’s nothing about love that isn’t there.
  • Tone. Songs are gushing, nostalgic, bitter, annoyed, sarcastic, wistful, horny, tired, excited, caustic, romantic, frustrated, pleased as punch and mad as hell. However you’re feeling, so is 69 Love Songs.
  • Genre. Synth-Pop, Folk, Jazz, Soul, Country, Dreampop, Punk (sorta), Tin Pan Alley, Singer/Songwriter, Experimental, Baroque, Reggae (UB40-style anyway) and a capella. Just about everything apart from hip-hop and metal.

It’s ridiculously ambitious–possibly moreso than any other album in history–but it holds together beautifully. Even the album’s most ardent fans wouldn’t claim that every song is a winner, but like most masterpieces, the flaws are just as endearing as the gems, and even unqualified failures like “Punk Love,” “Very Funny,” “Love is Like Jazz,” “Fido Your Leash is Too Long” and “Experimental Music Love” add to the feel of the whole album, and I can’t imagine it without them. Together, these 69 songs do the impossible–they provide the definitive word on the love song. It’s the totality of the experience.

And I continue to listen to it on Valentine’s Day for that reason. Hopefully some V-Day not too long from now, I won’t need it anymore, but for now, it’s like the romantic equivalent of good porn–the closest to the real thing that you can get while still on your own. And for that, I’m thankful.

3 Responses to “Tradition, Tradition! : 69 Love Songs on Valentine’s Day”

  1. Hey, I love “Very Funny”!

  2. Victor said

    Since the album was released in 1999 technically it’s the greatest artistic accomplishment of the 20th century facing off against works like Jackson Pollack paintings, the Sagrada Familia, and the Devil’s Advocate on VHS.

  3. Andrew Unterberger said

    Don’t forget Heat Vision and Jack and “Summer Girls”

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