Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Love's Labour's Lost but not Forgotten

Last weekend I found myself sitting in the back of a tony Brooklyn brunch spot.  As I awaited the arrival of my gruyere omelette (oh god, is this really what we're like?), I heard a song in the background that was so recognizable to me I barely noticed it:

The song was "Meaningless" of the third disc of the Magnetic Fields' 1999 magnum opus 69 Love Songs.  The record (or at least part three) was playing in its entirety on a small boom box in the back of the restaurant, sharing its painted smiles and plaintive frowns with staff and patrons alike.  It occurred to me then that I had heard this record played at numerous non-musical sites in both Manhattan and Brooklyn) and even while on location in The Classic City) over the past several months.  I began to wonder what exactly accounted for this record's staying power.  It is unwieldy in size and length, received almost no radio airplay on its release, got little if any publicity in the mainstream press.  What has prevented it from falling into the Dustbin of History?  After all, as we learned today from the demise of the floppy disk and the arrival of the new Hole album, the 90s are dead.

I don't mean to sell short the significance of 69 Love Songs.  If you were in college or just out in the late 90s, the album seemed to render the term "instant classic" logical.  Personally, I credit this record with altering my whole view on popular music, elucidating for me the importance of songwriting craft over musicianship.

But, of course, I heard this record when it came out in 1999. Many of the fine laborers playing this record in their boutiques today were ten years old at the time.  Somehow, they have been guided back to this record to the point where, despite minimal critical and no commercial success since the record's release, a Magnetic Fields concert still merits a write-up in, and groups of comic artists are illustrating the whole thing.

Typically such re-discovery occurs through the success of new bands that wear their influences on their sleeves.  It is challenging, however, to find bands today who are open disciples of the Fields.  Similar albums from the same time period can count numerous obvious pupils.  Neutral Milk Hotel, whose In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, was released in 1998, can be heard very clearly in anything by the Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, or Joanna Newsom.  I See a Darkness, the 1999 release from Will Oldham's Bonnie "Prince" Billy project, is at least partially if not directly responsible for the work of Bon Iver and FP-favorite The Tallest Man on Earth (more later this week).  But, while the love of wordplay and the affinity for kitsch heard on 69 Love Songs are certainly present in today's music, direct descendants are hard to establish.

I suppose that people have returned to this record, then, because of what I mentioned earlier: it is the rare record in which the songwriting and lyricism are perfect while the musicianship seems trivial.  (this is of course not the case; the simple-sounding musicianship is one the album's many layers of artifice).  There is a rather permanent charm to a record which seems to be made by laying down a simple beat on a Casio and singing your clever words over the top; its lack of direct influence likely relates to the fact that Stephen Merritt's words are a little more clever than those of everyone else.  It's encouraging then that still today songs can cross generations not because of press or sales or imitation, but simply because they are catchy, because they are memorable, because they are fun. 

Some of our favorite selections from the album below:

The Magnetic Fields - The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side

The Magnetic Fields - The Book of Love

The Magnetic Fields - Crazy For You (But Not That Crazy)

The Magnetic Fields - The Night You Can't Remember


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