We’re interested in genius. We’re interested in epic ambition. We’re fascinated with what can be made by a person with enough time and focus and caffeine. If we are drawn to Infinite Jest, we’re also drawn to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Songs, for which Steven Merritt wrote that many songs, all of them about love, in about two years […] We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own, is capable of.
– Dave Eggers, in the foreword to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
The Magnetic Fields is the monstrous brainchild of singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt. Over the course of his work, and even within a single album, his sound shifts from distorted synth to sweet, honest folk. His rough, gravelly vocals are countered often by the harmonies of Susan Anway or Shirley Simms, stretched into beautiful melodies or an unyielding drone; sometimes they’re absent completely. In his three-volume album 69 Love Songs (1999)there are nods to every imaginable style, from Scottish folk to Philip Glass minimalism to punk rock to acoustic ballads. There is an ode to linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and a cover of John Cage’s 4’33”.
One of the geniuses lurking in the shadows of childhood also makes an appearance in 69 Love Songs. The album showcased Daniel Handler — known more widely under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket — on accordion. This sent me into the kind of frenzy that would cause my 11-year-old self to bow her bespectacled head in shame. It wasn’t always easy to read his novels through the perpetually tinted glass of my transition lenses, but I managed.
Merritt writes cheeky, biting, but always sublime lyrics. Clinging to every clever verse and casually depressive lyric is a morsel of truth. Lusty quips like, “A pretty boy in his underwear/ if there’s anything better in this world, who cares?” and the resigned “Eligible, not too stupid, intelligible and cute as Cupid. Knowledgeable, but not always right, salvageable and free for the night” are met with raw reflection on love and loss:
True, I’d give my right arm
To keep you safe from harm.
And true, for you I’d move to Ecuador.
And I’d keep a little farm,
Chop wood to keep you warm,
But I don’t really love you anymore.
The bulk of this album leaves me feeling despondent but secretly relishing it. It’s the kind of music that can tap into the sort-of-sweet sadness inside of you and let you savor it. Merritt’s outlandish approach captures the little bit of insanity it takes to keep seeking out something that guarantees as much pain as it does joy. It’s that, just as much as the sheer magnitude of the project, that makes it a work of genius.
Sounds like: whiskey in a dixie cup, smoking on the fire escape when it’s really too cold to be outside, Prozac, clove cigarettes, dressing in black and reading Camus.
Listen: The Magnetic Fields – “I Don’t Want To Get Over You”