69 Love Songs: A Field Guide

A few years ago I asked the Magnetic Fields whether I, and a director, might be able to make a musical based on 69 Love Songs. Claudia Gonson very charmingly edged us away from the idea: Stephin, she said, gets this sort of request a lot, and doesn’t see what the point of them is: the album stands up for itself in its original form. And so we quietly forgot about it, although not about the album, which bears all the repeated listening you can throw at it.

There’s something about it as a project that demands a creative response, though. It’s because of the scale of the project – there are too many love songs to get your head around at once, so how can we take a slice through them? And it’s also because the songs themselves are tiny – each one gives a little spark of a narrative. How Fucking Romantic was an attempt to illustrate all 69 of the songs, and there has been at least one chamber piece based on some of them. And then there’s this: 69 Love Songs: A Field Guide. In the 33 1/3 series, which documents making of classic albums, this might in other hands have been a walk through the making of the album with some thoughts from its progenitor. But writer LD Beghtol – having sung on the album – is far too close to the spirit of the original for anything quite so pedestrian.

So what we have is a glossary of words that turn up in the songs, comments on all of the songs from various participants, a semi-mock interview with Stephin Merritt, and a crossword. The glossary, particularly, tends to go off into unexpected narrative tangents, which range from the fascinating to the amusing to the self-indulgent and annoying. Not unlike, I would suggest, the content of the album.

But if you’re looking for more of Stephin’s thoughts about each of the songs, then you’ll be disappointed. His comments tend to be wry, dry, reflections on the recording process, rather than ever discussing the inspiration behind the songs. But then, the album stands up for itself. What more do you need to know?

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