Magnetic Fields Fill Box Set With 69 Love Songs

Frontman Stephin Merritt sings most tracks and plays nearly all instruments on limited-edition release.

While sitting in a gay piano bar in Midtown Manhattan last year,

Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt asked himself the question

that eventually led him to make the three-CD box set 69 Love Songs.

"I thought, 'What can I do that no one else can?' " Merritt recalled,

speaking from his New York apartment last month. Initially, he

considered writing 100 love songs for a live theatrical revue that

would feature four singers. But after mulling that idea over for a few

minutes, he figured he would be "a little more comfortable" writing 69

tunes for an album.

69 Love Songs isn't the first time Merritt has put together a concept

record for Magnetic Fields. 1994's The Charm of the Highway Strip

compiled 10 country-style pop tunes about traveling on the open road.

Having spent the past three years making records for his other

bands—the 6th, Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies—Merritt

was due to turn in another Magnetic Fields LP. He decided

69 Love Songs — his sixth album under that bandname since

1990 and the follow-up to 1995's Get Lost—would fulfill

that obligation.

The surprise is that the audience hungry to embrace the album is much

bigger than Merritt or anyone at his label, Merge Records, had expected.

Merge only pressed 2,500 copies of the box set, all of which, according

to Magnetic Fields' publicist, sold out Tuesday, the day the album was

released.

"We definitely underestimated the demand for the box set," Merge

spokesperson Martin Hall said Friday. Fans began calling the label

Wednesday to order 69 Love Songs by mail, because their local record

store had sold out of them, Hall said.

"It was all new territory for us, so we were trying to err on the side

of caution," he said of their conservative initial pressing. "But as

long as there's a demand there, we'll do our best to meet it."

Luckily for fans and intrigued listeners who weren't first out of the

gate Tuesday, the limited-edition box set is about to become a little

less limited. Merge tentatively is planning to press an additional 3,000 copies. The

second pressing, like the first, will be available both as a set or as

three separate CDs.

The album, called a masterpiece by both Spin magazine and the New York

weekly the Village Voice, features Merritt singing the bulk of the

tracks and playing almost all the instruments. Guest singers Dudley

Klute, Shirley Simms, Claudia Gonson and LD Beghtol also have their

turns on the mic. Each guest vocalist performs six songs—two

per CD—including one same-sex love song. Gonson's is titled

"Acoustic Guitar."

Merritt also does some flipping back and forth in sexual identity,

and at times sings as the opposite sex, as on "The Night You Can't

Remember," in which he refers to having a lover's "junior." While the

majority of the songs are tales of betrayal, longing and misery, a few

tunes revel in contented love, such as "Let's Pretend We're Bunny

Rabbits" and "The Book of Love."

"There aren't a lot of happy love songs in the world to begin with,"

Merritt said. "You know the expression - 'Happy families are all

alike'? Happy love songs are all alike." Merritt said none of the songs are fully autobiographical.

"A love song is almost never fiction and almost never fact," he

said. "There are a few songwriters in the world who write about

their lives and only about their lives, but I'm certainly not one

of them. In order to have something universal enough to be a love

song, they have to not contain too much specificity."

But Merritt said that "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side"

(RealAudio excerpt)

has some true-life references. In the song, he reflects

on the benefit of having a car in high school. "I had a great social

life because of it and only because of it," he said.

Merritt does more genre-hopping on 69 Love Songs than ever before on

a Magnetic Fields album. Styles range from the mainstream rock of "I

Don't Want to Get Over You" to the jilted jazz of "Love Is Like Jazz"

(RealAudio excerpt)

to the hillbilly folk of "Kiss Me Like You Mean It"

to the country flavor of "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off."

Merritt said he's "finished with rock records for the Magnetic Fields."

Wanting the voice to be the loudest instrument on all the tracks,

Merritt kept the production simple and used fewer instruments than

usual.

"I wanted the songs themselves to be the focus of attention," he said,

adding that his usual process "is writing a song and then piling on

more and more instruments until it can't stand any more." The

instruments, Merritt said, were recorded "in batches," during such

periods as "Bass Guitar Week."

Merritt had 69 songs written when he began recording the effort in

September 1998, though dozens of them were replaced with better tunes as

the recording progressed. He used some old songs, including "For We

Are the King of the Boudoir," that would not have fit on previous

albums. "That song was completely inappropriate for Magnetic Fields

before this," he said. "But I decided nothing was inappropriate as

long as it was a love song."