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In which we laugh and laugh and laugh. And love. And drink.

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Otium cum Dignitatae

Monday, November 10, 2008

Where Music Comes From

I really try not to write too much about those albums where most of the critical community has already decided they are classic. As much as I agree that the Stones' Exile On Main Street is probably the best album rock n' roll has produced yet, I'm not in a big hurry to simply add my voice to that chorus. Same with Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; it was a game changer, both musically and politically. But do I want to be the millionth-and-one to say that?

However, there are those cases where everybody seems to have the same admiration for the album, but it'd take too long to examine why. Case in point; The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, from 1999.
It merits inclusion in the canon of the truly great rock n' roll records -somewhere near The Who's Tommy, I'd wager- because it wants to be so many different things and actually pulls it off. It could be viewed as an attempt to write an entire new set of torch song standards, a basis for what could certainly be the greatest musical ever written, an earnest attempt to explore every aspect of both love and love songs, at times a celebration of music itself, and finally, one of the best musical in-jokes I've heard.

Trouble is, it really is sixty-nine songs long (they wanted it to be a hundred, and I believe they actually recorded that many), and takes up three CDs. To review it is like reviewing a David Lean epic motion picture. This may very well be why so many record reviewers at the time chose to more or less say "I like it! I really, really like it!", and move on.
Also, the damn thing comes with a pretty lengthy booklet that attempts to explain itself in the form of an interview with the sole songwriter, Stephen Meritt. Generally I would be against such things, but he's just so damn funny and smart, he gets a pass.

(Kudos too for trying to do something new with what is easily the most written-about topic in the entire history of music.)

"Don't fall in love with me," the first song begins, abruptly. Over a riot of music that on further listening turns out to be a ukelele backed with a loop of that testing tone that used to appear at the beginning and end of all cassette tapes, 'Absolutely Cuckoo' is sung as a round:

"Don't fall in love with me yet/ we only recently met/ true I'm in love with you/ but you might decide that I'm a nut/ give me a week or two/ to go absolutely cuckoo/ then, when you see your error/ then, you can flee in terror/ like everybody else does/ I'm only telling you this 'cause/ I'm easy to get rid of/ but not if you fall in love/ Know now that I'm on the make/ and if you make a mistake/ my heart will certainly break/ I'll have to jump in a lake/ and all my friends will blame you/ there's no telling what they'll do/ It's only fair to tell you/ I'm absolutely cuckoo"

Then it repeats. It's the kind of thing you wish that people would actually say to each other, and then you remember: sometimes they do. Also, the childlike rhyming makes it palatable and charming rather than menacing. Already the album establishes itself as being realistic, but arch and wry, able to laugh at itself.

That same ability comes in handy on the next one, 'I Don't Believe In The Sun'. It is every bit the adolescent, wayyy over dramatic, self-pitying song that the title suggests. But remember: you've felt this way too, and not just when you were a teenager.
In fact, since so many love songs are about the loss of love rather than just plain old love, it requires a certain touch to try to redefine the genre. This particular song is devastatingly plain about how bad the author feels, but also with that fantastic gallows humor that all of us develop, after a while:
"The only stars/ there really are/ were shining in your eyes
There is no sun/ except the one/ that never shone on other guys
The moon to whom/ the poets croon/ has given up/ and died
Astronomy/ will have to be/ revised"

A quick look over the track listings presents a classification system, for those seeking a taxonomy of the Sixty-Nine:

Tracks specifically making fun of other musical genres: 'Punk Love', 'Experimental Music Love', 'World Love' and 'Love Is Like Jazz'

Tracks either poking fun or offering homage to other genres or groups: 'Sweet Lovin' Man' could easily be a song by somebody like Sheryl Crow. 'Long Forgotten Fairytale' could be Human League. 'The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing' pretty much is a Depeche Mode song. 'Abigail, Belle of Kilronan' is a spot-on satire of that maudlin Irish folk song that insists on mixing love with warfare and suffering. 'Wi Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget' goes even deeper into Irish folk. 'Yeah! Oh Yeah!' sounds like something Phil Spector produced. 'For We Are the King of the Boudoir' has a harpsichord as its chief instrument, and could easily be a madrigal. 'Acoustic Guitar' sounds like someone's way too earnest effort at a coffeehouse open mike.

Tracks from the version of the album back when they were considering making it alphabetical (and presumably, shorter): 'Underwear', 'Xylophone Track', 'Zebra', others.

Tracks that could easily be turned into country songs: almost all of them, but especially 'The One You Really Love', which could be a Carter Family song, with very little alteration.

Again, if I sit here and break down each song piece by piece, we'll be here all month. I almost want to do it though, since Stephen Merritt is just that good, and raises so many feelings in so many ways. He's the Cole Porter of his generation, and I'm not just saying that because he's gay: He holds a title in my book that no one else is even in competition for.

Line by line? Is that the way to do it?
"You are a splendid butterfly/ it is your wings that make you beautiful
and I could make you fly away/ but I could never make you stay..."
-'All My Little Words'

"We don't have to be stars exploding in the night
or electric eels under the covers
we don't have to be anything quite so unreal
let's just be lovers"
-'A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off'

"Or I could make a career of being blue/ I could dress in black and read Camus
smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth/ like I was seventeen/ that would be a scream"
-'I Don't Want to Get Over You'

"When you betray me, betray me with a kiss/ Damn you, I've never stayed up as late as this"- 'Come Back from San Francisco'

"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" -'The Book of Love'

And that's leaving out the songs that are so damn good as a whole that to take one line out of them simply won't do, like the insane wordplay of 'Reno Dakota', the out of control punning of 'Fido, Your Leash is Too Long', the overwhelming double entendres of 'Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits', the spare bitterness accompanied by finger snapping of 'How Fucking Romantic', the tear-jerkingly beautiful imagery of 'Nothing Matters When We're Dancing'. It ends off with the spare banjo and piano of 'The Things We Did and Didn't Do', which might be the greatest song about regret I've ever heard. All I've just covered there is on Disc One alone.

There is a song -'My Only Friend'- that is a Billie Holliday tribute. Busby Berkeley turns up twice, in 'The Way You Say Goodnight' and 'Busby Berkeley Dreams'. The Brill Building makes an appearance in 'Epitaph for My Heart', and the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier shows up in 'The Death of Ferdinand DeSaussure'...Because it rhymes, and show-biz jokes abound here.

But there's a larger message at work in all of these songs. By being so abysmally depressed that someone else's singing is the only thing that can save your life, you take your place in a very long historical line, keeping company with many, many people. The same is true of being happy and content. Having a sense of humor about it too puts you in some fantastic company indeed.

And mixing pretentious in-jokes about obscure and long-dead Swiss linguists with Seussian word play at its finest makes you the kind of poet that people will actually listen to:
"I met Ferdinand DeSaussure/ on a night like this/ on love, he said I'm not so sure/ I even understand what it is/ No understanding, no closure/ it is a nemesis/ You don't use a bulldozer/ to study orchids, he said"

Musical cliches are turned nicely on their ear, like in the album-stopping 'Papa Was a Rodeo':
"Papa was a rodeo/ mama was a rock n' roll band/ 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 hung around long enough for a one-night stand..."

It could be any country song, but at first it sounds like a conversation between two men in a redneck bar who are discreetly discussing leaving together:
"I like your twisted point of view, Mike/ I like your questioning eyebrows/ you've made it pretty clear what you like/ it's only fair to tell you now/ that I leave early in the morning/ and I won't be back 'til next year/ I see that kiss-me pucker forming/ but maybe you should plug it/ with a beer"

And we can't resist the urge to go a little existential here, because we're not stupid people, and even when we're picking each other up in bars, we are still thinking about things:
"The light reflecting off the mirror ball/ looks like a thousand swirling eyes/ they make think I shouldn't be here at all/ you know, every minute someone dies/ what are we doing in this dive bar?/ How can you live in a place like this?/ Why don't you just get into my car/ and I'll take you away, I'll take that/ kiss now"

"And now it's fifty-five years later/ we've had the romance of a century/ after all these years wrestlin' gators/ I still feel like cryin' when I think of what you said to me:"
And then Claudia Gonson steps in and sings the chorus again. She is the one who has been the narrarator the entire time, not Stephen Merritt. This is exactly the kind of bait-and-switch that a country song writer would use: you thought they were gay, didn't you?

A Bo Diddley barnburner like 'I'm Sorry I Love You' still has, amidst its bluster, the weird sort of overthinking that you do when you're confused and in love-or-something:
"A simple rose in your garden dwells
like any rose, it's not itself
it is my love, in your garden grows
but let's pretend it's just a rose"

There's a couple of songs that more or less make their points while also really showcasing how much fun he's having just writing songs. 'Love Is Like A Bottle of Gin' is basically a riddle:
"It's very small, and made of glass/ and grossly over-advertised/ it turns a genius to an ass/ and makes a fool think he is wise"
that only gets around to explaining itself in the final verse:
"You just get out what they put in/ and they never put in enough/ love is like a bottle of gin/ but a bottle of gin is not like love"

And love is also like jazz (as in the song 'Love Is Like Jazz'):
"You make it up as you go along/ and you act as if you know the song
but you don't, and you ne-ver willl..."

"It's divine, it's asinine, it's depressing/ And it's almost entirely/ window dressing
(incredibly long pause) But it'll do"

From 'A Pretty Girl is Like...':
"A pretty girl is like a violent crime/ if you do it wrong, you could do time
but when you do it right, it is sublime/ I'm
So in love with you girl, it's like I'm on the moon
I can't really breathe, but I feel lighter..."

But ultimately he is forced to concede:
"A melody is like a pretty girl/ who cares if it's the dumbest in the world?
it's all about the way that it unfurls/ a pretty girl is like/ a pretty girl"

And like love, like life, there is not only an amazing undercurrent of bitterness but also a fair amount of open nastiness. In the oddly Stevie Nicks-esque song 'No One Will Ever Love You', the observation is made that, "No one will ever love you honestly/ no one will ever love you for your honesty". True.

The wall-of-sound song 'Yeah! Oh Yeah!' features a duet between Claudia and Stephen, and concludes this way:
STEPHEN: I've enjoyed making you miserable for years. Found peace of mind in playing on your fears. How I loved to catch your gold and silver tears, but now my dear...

CLAUDIA: What a dark and dreary life. Are you reaching for a knife? Would you really kill your wife?

STEPHEN: Yeah! Oh yeah!

CLAUDIA: Oh I die, I die, I die. So it's over, you and I? Was my whole life just a lie?

STEPHEN: Yeah! Oh yeah!

And 'The One You Really Love', which is a pretty hard song anyway, ends off by reminding the unheard second party in the room that by pining for a dead lover, that means "you're dreaming of/ the corpse you really love"

The very to-the-point 'How Fucking Romantic' has the guest vocalist Dudley Klute admonishing his boyfriend about how stereotypically gay their relationship has become. But really the problem is the relationship itself:
"Love you obviously/ like you really care/ even though you treat me/ like a dancing bear/ toss your bear goldfish/ as it cycles by/ don't forget to feed your bear, or it'll die"

He does a later song that is about being in a relationship with a guy that beats you, and your associated self-delusions, called 'Long Forgotten Fairytale'.

In the song 'Meaningless', he is forced to admit that a recently ended thing was entirely without point, but at the same time, it is:
"deliciously meaningless/ effervescently meaningless/ beautifully meaningless/ profoundly meaningless/ definitively meaningless/ comprehensively meaningless/ magnificently meaningless/ incredibly meaningless/ unprecedentedly meaningless/ mind-blowingly meaningless/" With all of those being separated by a bunch of 'yes yes yes (es)'.

Finally, credit goes above all else to the songs that remind you that there is good things and fun to be had in this whole enterprise of lovin', livin' n' dyin':

"This too shall pass, so raise your glass to change and chance/ and freedom is the only law, shall we dance?"- 'World Love'

"Maybe it's you/ you know, your eyes are awful blue/ maybe it's more/ maybe you're all I ever waited for/ after all the sleepless nights/ when I wished I could still cry/"-'The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing'

"Washington, D.C./ it's the greatest place to be/ it's not the cherries everywhere in bloom/ it's not the way they put folks on the moon/ no no no/ it's not the spectacle and pageantry/ the thousand things you've got to see/ it's just that's where my baby waits for me"
- 'Washington, D.C.'

"My girl is the queen of the jungle folk/ you should see the things we see when we smoke/ we think all of life is a funny joke/ she's sharp as a tack/ I don't care if I never get back"- 'Queen of the Savages'

There are songs about the little pleasures of watching your lover asleep, and just appreciating how they say goodnight (as well as grudgingly appreciating how well they say goodbye), the pleasure of fucking, and of dancing, a song about the pleasures of anonymous sex, the mixed feelings generated by semi-anonymous sex that results in pregnancy:
"No rose conveyed your sentiments/ not even a petunia/ but you've got vague presentiments/ and I've got little junior"- 'The Night You Can't Remember'

They manage to get away with the line "I love it when you give me things" (in 'The Book of Love') because you know what they mean, and more importantly what they don't mean.

And again, the last song is called 'Zebra', because he thought the whole thing should end with a 'z'. It's a screamingly funny little song about a spoiled rich lady who already has everything asking her husband for, ultimately, another zebra, because, "Zelda looks lonely".

Like I said, trying to review the damn thing is like reviewing an encyclopedia: the wise do not attempt it. Or like critiquing a life; you can't, really. By my count, there's twenty-four songs that I didn't even get into, and a couple of them are my favorites. Really, just had to say this: I like it. I really, really like it.



Blogger Salty Miss Jill said...

GAH! Thanks for this review! Also one of my favorite CDs. I'll take it our every six months and play the whole thing nonstop for a week straight.
Love the liner notes within, too.
Rich Bachelor, you have the most exquisite taste in music and such a gift for writing about it.

4:36 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Thanks for saying so. Hey: I feel like I should discuss pork here...Shoulder? Y'do any shoulder lately? Everyone here's all big into belly...My big thing of late has been to wrap loin in Serrano ham, put it in the oven and let it go for a while.

Now; go write something.

6:48 PM  
Blogger disco boy said...

i don't own this record. i feel... shame.

9:15 AM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Y' better git it!

9:31 AM  
Blogger Aunty Christ said...

I should note that this set was one of the first gifts I ever got from Rich, and for that reason I have to appreciate his love for it. It's nearly perfect. I will say that the only song I don't like on the album is Reno Dakota, although possibly that has more to do with an irritating deejay on a station I listen to who called herself Reno Dakota than with the actual song.

10:43 AM  

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