Sixty-Nine Ways to Lose Your Lover

American loverman Stephin Merritt (second from right) with his Magnetic Fields

On the Magnetic Fields' new 69 Love Songs, you can almost see singer Stephin Merritt crooning onstage in a darkened nightclub, looking jaded in his new smoking jacket--perhaps one borrowed from Bryan Ferry, or, better yet, Tony Randall. He's standing on a teetering chair holding a brandy snifter in one hand and a mic in the other, swaying yet imperiously holding his balance. As the room quiets, he rolls his eyes dramatically, raises the snifter in a sardonic toast, and cranks up the bathos in his powerful baritone. "Papa was a rodeo, Mama was a rock 'n' roll band," he sings mournfully. "I could play guitar and rope a steer before I learned to stand/Home was anywhere with diesel gas/Love was a trucker's hand/Never stuck around long enough for a one night sta-aa-aand..."

Admittedly, "Papa Was a Rodeo" is the most over-the-top of the 69 cuts on this three-album set. But it's a perfect snapshot of Merritt's most winning persona: an openly gay, disaffected, and endearingly weird combination of French crooner Charles Aznavour and Johnny Cash. If most entertainers of such a caliber are masochists at heart, Merritt's a sadist: He made fans wait half a decade for a followup to the last two Magnetic Fields albums, Holiday and The Charm of the Highway Strip. Now he slams us with a demanding three-hour concept album--at least it's only 69 songs, not the originally planned 100--and it doesn't even feel like the same Magnetic Fields. There's an off-putting flippancy to the very notion of recording more than five-dozen love songs. And its execution summons the whole of 20th-century pop music for what feels like a goof.

Taken together, though, the collected show tunes, Tin Pan Alley tributes, and folk-pop numbers rise above the level of such Merritt side projects as the 6ths (his indie-pop karaoke session) and Future Bible Heroes (effectively, his Erasure tribute). The triple album's shifting mise en scène has the whirlwind, wheel-out-the-next-set quality of a musical-comedy revue. It's a show as witty and heart-tugging as its director's best indie rock, now just decked out in whimsical Rodgers-and-Hammerstein drag.

There's plenty of tongue-in-cheek melodrama, much of it given voice by vocalists other than the auteur. Magnetic Fields member Claudia Gonson appears, along with a cast of unknowns who, frankly, sound like they're auditioning to be understudies. The results call to mind the genre of musicals, from A Chorus Line to Cabaret, where actors on a stage play actors on a stage. Narrator/emcee Merritt establishes his unreliability at the outset, declaring himself to be "Absolutely Cuckoo" on track one of album one: "Don't fall in love with me yet," he warns. The remaining 68 numbers are set in barrooms, ballrooms, and empty stages where whirling ghosts of loves past and present collide, besotted by music, alcohol, "Busby Berkeley dreams," and mind games inspired by potent mixings thereof. "Love is like a bottle of gin, but a bottle of gin is not like love" (album three: track thirteen) is only one of the dozens of aphoristic verses self-referentially summarizing the proceedings. Or try this one: "A melody is like a pretty girl/Who cares if it's the dumbest in the world/It's all about that way that it unfurls" (one: nineteen).

Clearly music critics love Stephin Merritt because he thinks like a music critic. Indeed, he is one (for Time Out New York), and a music historian to boot. On 69, he writes more like one than ever, with hooks full of musical and lyrical allusions to his influences--Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach, Holland/Dozier/Holland--as well as the occasional highbrow hero (Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure).

Like a love affair--or a philanderer's string of them--the songbook is alternately fantastic and frustrating, a rapid succession of heady highs, annoying buzz-kills, and not a few boring interludes. The entire triple set, like a triple Scotch on the rocks, is by definition not consumable in moderation. If you must choose only one disc (they are sold separately, for the commitment-phobic), Vol.1 provides a representative sample. Fidelity's futility is the recurrent theme here, with "Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long" its standout--a bouncy synth line even mimics the sound of a roving dog digging up trouble.

Still, Vol. 2 is the hands-down pick for anyone craving those busy arrangements and major-key arpeggios that are Magnetic Fields' trademarks. The disc contains no less than a dozen perfectly gorgeous songs that shamelessly jerk for tears. (One does so explicitly with Gonson singing, " If you don't cry, then you just don't feel it deep enough.") There are a few masterpieces of bathetic self-pity, including "My Only Friend," which invokes Billie Holiday on behalf of those of us who "can only live in songs of love and trouble." And there's "The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing," which is without question the greatest tulip-smashing ukulele party song ever written.

On Vol. 3 the hangover inevitably kicks in. The material loses steam, and the conceit begins to feel stale. Throughout 69 Love Songs, the losers of the bunch are invariably the numbers that try to pay winking tribute to broader, way-off-Broadway genres. Merritt and his minions try on gospel ("Kiss Me Like You Mean It"), country ("I'm Sorry I Love You"), lite-reggae ("It's a Crime"), and Celtic traditional ("Abigail, Belle of Kilronan" and--groan--"Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget"). Three novelty songs--"Punk Love," "World Love," and "Experimental Music Love," (one per disc)--are good gags on first listen and filler thereafter. Jazz and the blues are given flatly insulting treatments on "Love Is Like Jazz" and "Xylophone Track," respectively.

But ultimately, the whole finds entropy working in its favor. Diminishing returns, after all, are the common lot of all magnificent obsessions, whether in pop music or love. Merritt's greatest talent may be for knowing how to construct beautifully choreographed dream worlds that are all the more seductive for being paper moons and cardboard seas. Be on guard, though. If you take him too seriously--no matter how often he tells you not to--you'll come out believing that life really is a cabaret.

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