Before you’re old enough to know what love is, a love song tells you. When we’re kids, we hear so many love songs that hint at the intricacies of romance — the infatuation, desire, sadness, misery, confusion and exhalation — and so when we start dating, we fill those experiences with the songs we’ve absorbed. The songs become the musical scrapbook of those relationships. Years later, that particular relationship long over, we can still hear a particular song and conjure up the entirety of being with that person. We move on, but the song never forgets.
“69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love,” Stephin Merritt once claimed about his band the Magnetic Fields’ best record. “It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.” That might be slightly disingenuous — Merritt is known for his sardonic side — but it gets to the heart of what has made this 1999 masterwork the quintessential love album. It chronicles in meticulous fashion all the ways that we think of love through the language of love songs. No matter what your relationship status is, 69 Love Songs has a tune for you. Depending on where I’ve been in my love life, some tracks have spoken more strongly to me than others. But they’re all true.
As its title suggests, 69 Love Songs is nothing but love songs, written in different styles from different perspectives. Some sound like they could be from Merritt’s point-of-view, while others are dressed up in fictional scenarios, and sometimes they’re sung by Merritt’s associates, both men and women. Back when the album came out, people wondered how much of the material was autobiographical, and he always deflected. (“My interest in ‘keeping it real’ is pretty nil,” he said in that same interview, later adding, “I find artifice more fun than pure confession,” and “I’m not sure I want to be taken seriously [as an artist]. It would be somewhat imprisoning.”) But beyond protecting his private life, those dodges are valuable because they take the songs’ origins away from Merritt’s personal experience and allow you, the listener, to adopt them as your own.
Of course, this emotional appropriation is part of the process with all love songs. (How many people have sung Rihanna’s “We Found Love” or Adele’s “Hello” out loud because they were convinced those artists knew what they were going through?) But 69 Love Songs is uniquely suited to this act of transference because it’s one-stop shopping for any romantic scenario. Worried about being a commitment-phobe? Try the deceptively catchy “I Think I Need a New Heart,” where the narrator can see the unhappy ending coming down the road. Just had your soul ripped out by the person you loved? There’s “I Don’t Believe in the Sun,” a shimmering, distraught piano ballad. (“The only sun I ever knew / Was the beautiful one that was you.”) In a relationship where the sex is great? Then you’ll dig the country-ish/gospel-ish “Kiss Me Like You Mean It,” sung by musician Shirley Simms. The deeply devoted — or maybe just the needy — will understand the moody, keyboard-driven “You’re My Only Home.” (“I will stay if you let me stay / And I’ll go if you let me go / But I won’t go far away / Because you’re my only home.”) And the bouncy “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” featuring vocals by singer Dudley Klute, is the anthem for anyone in those euphoric first stages of puppy love.
Long before the legalization of same-sex marriage or conversations about sexual fluidity appeared in the mainstream, 69 Love Songs presented straight and gay romance in such a way that it wasn’t always clear what the gender was of the song’s object of affection. In 2015, Merritt told Rolling Stone that “gay songwriters in general write character songs because they’re not really in a position to have mainstream success writing in detail about their own lives. Taylor Swift expects that teenage girls will identify with her songs, and teenage girls are by far the largest market for selling records and that’s fine. But I’m not in a position to decide that only gay men are going to be my market.”
Nevertheless, some of 69 Love Songs’ most beautiful moments, including the crushing cowboy ballad “Papa Was a Rodeo,” are mini-narratives about complicated gay relationships that have such specificity that, although they’re fictions, ripple with the pain and impossibility of love. As a straight listener, 69 Love Songs never felt like an album for “only gay men.” The sentiments were too piercing — the melodies too perfect — for the songs not to be embraced by everyone. It’s another example of the album’s wide-ranging aesthetic: Whoever you are, 69 Love Songs can be your soundtrack.
Occasionally, someone online will decide to rank all 69 love songs on 69 Love Songs, and it’s fitting that there’s not a lot of consensus on those lists. Because the album runs the gamut from punk to experimental to jazz to pop to country to indie to lounge to psychedelia, certain songs will hit certain listeners harder depending on their musical preference. Likewise, how you’re feeling about love at that moment may determine your favorites.
In the midst of a bad breakup, the anguished guitar workout “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” — in which a heartsick wife (sung by Claudia Gonson) tries to keep her callous husband (Merritt) from leaving her, leading to a shockingly murderous finale — was my only balm. (I envisioned myself as the poor wife.) Later, when I thought about a first song for my wedding, the romantic “The Book of Love” was a possibility until I decided it was a little too obvious. (It’s the most popular Magnetic Fields song on Spotify.) Still, its explanation of the title object — “The book of love has music in it / In fact that’s where music comes from / Some of it is just transcendental / Some of it is just really dumb” — is a wryly apt description of 69 Love Songs’ ambitious attempt to dissect and critique the architecture of love songs.
Ultimately, most love songs are cheesy, but because Merritt sings in his deadpan voice, he seems disinclined to indulge in the format’s sappy, manipulative tenets. And yet, the purity of 69 Love Songs — even when he’s satirizing certain styles or love-sick sentiments — undercuts the detachment in his vocals. You don’t write that many love songs if, on some level, you don’t truly believe that we all need them. Which is another way of saying that as well as being incredibly catchy and emotional, 69 Love Songs is also often very funny, because love — especially when it’s going bad — can be funny.
Sometimes transcendental, sometimes wonderfully dumb, 69 Love Songs is about love songs but, more importantly, it’s about our relationship to the idea that love songs possess some irreducible truth about love itself. “I should have forgotten you long ago,” Merritt sings in the impossibly swooning “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “but you’re in every song I know.” We keep listening to 69 Love Songs over the years because, deep down, maybe we don’t want to forget those past pains and joys. We listen because we want to remember. Love songs teach us what love is — and they stay with us like scars.