Ah, love songs. They’re hard to love, but harder to hate. The two are never far apart.
Except for today, that is. Around Valentine’s Day people usually start to ponder more about love. What’s it all about? Worth the trouble, or just a pile of rubble? It’s different for everyone. Yet the songs on the radio suddenly get a new ring to them. As you listen closely, you’ll soon find that a big chunk of the pop charts are composed of love-related songs. All year through, people hum along without noticing. It’s usually only until around Valentine’s Day that people start to hate the same songs, and with good reason. Who needs a millionaire pop artist to whine about that particular one who got away, their break-ups or happiness in love? We ordinary people go through the same shit every day, except we don’t have money-oozing bank accounts and tons of admirers. Damned be capitalism, commercialism and their soul-wrenching, toe-curling spawn that is Valentine’s Day!
All that aside, the fact remains that love songs are an integral part of popular music. Some of them are pretty dumb, yes, but almost everyone has at least some love songs they like. There’s just something magical about them that resonates with our hearts. Here I’d like to discuss the frequency that mine is tuned into:
In 1999, the so-called “indie-pop” band The Magnetic Fields released the concept-album titled 69 Love Songs. The term concept-album basically means that the songs exist more around one particular theme rather than around the sound of the music itself. And while the theme of this album is indeed love, there’s a twist to it. Here’s how Stephin Merritt, songwriter and mastermind of the band, put it:
“69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.”
The three-volume album pays homage to the history of love songs through the use of a myriad of sounds combined with clever lyrics. “Clever”, meaning that all songs are posed as love songs, but always have a twist to them which makes them humorous, dark, heartfelt, depressing or just awkward (which does add up since it’s about love and all). At times it can be hard to get a grip on how a song is supposed to make you feel due to the frequent juxtapositions of sad lyrics set to happy tunes. All clichés ever produced in love song history show up on the album, but always in a surprising or plain unorthodox fashion. Stephin Merritt skillfully shows just how much he flouts the concept of a love song, but at the same time he honors its tradition with care and dedication.
An example can be found in the song “A Pretty Girl is Like”, a parody on old minstrel show tunes (specifically Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”):
As you might have heard, the song revolves around the love song cliché of overblown metaphors. In this take of Merritt’s, the conclusions to his similes are anything but romantic, however.
Merritt’s low singing voice is fairly untrained, which, strangely enough, adds to the overall sound rather than detracts from it. The album often has a lo-fi sound which comes off as amateurish, corny or vulnerable in the places where it should be. This does not mean that the sound produced in the songs are particularly pretty, but they do get the job done in terms of creating an atmosphere. There is nothing virtuosic about the instrumentals or the singing, but the album does well to make up for that in terms of songwriting and the aforementioned atmospheric qualities. Furthermore, there are songs which are complete jokes, such as “Experimental Music Love”:
Yeah. Not much to be said about that. The joke is a fairly direct jab at the “experimental music” genre, but delivers its punch in a theoretical sense rather than in a practical one; you might enjoy the idea of the joke, but you’ll probably skip through it next time when you listen to the album.
However, as stated before, I think there are quite a few songs that do get better after multiple hearings, and some of them (the most heart-felt ones) have the potential to be classics. Probably the most famous song to come from this album is “The Book of Love”, Peter Gabriel’s orchestral rendition of which you might know from TV-series such as South Park (the Tweek X Craig episode) or the finale of Scrubs:
The song itself reflects on love as being a fairly silly concept, not always that great, but ultimately worth it considering the person you love. It poses sober cynicism against the overwhelmingness of love in a very effective way that makes my heart jump with each of the song’s triumphant cries. It feels good to have negativity, cynicism, reason—beaten by love; a message that resonates with a large number of people, including me. It is also a take on love songs that isn’t heard on the radio every day. One could say that it is a more profound exploration of the whole “Let’s have sex because #yolo!”-thing, which even romantic poets where on back when they were relevant. Dirty, dirty Keats.
To conclude, I recommend that you check out this album. It might be from 1999, but I’d say that this work is still relevant in terms of craftsmanship and message, which I would boil down to something along the lines of “Love songs can be pretty stupid. But so is love, and who doesn’t want that?” Especially around Valentine’s Day it might be nice to consider the possible meanings of love, and I think Stephin Merritt does a great job of showing many different aspects, be it stupid, delicate, or just plain fun:
It makes you blind, it does you in
It makes you think you’re pretty tough
It makes you prone to crime and sin
It makes you say things off the cuff
It’s very small and made of glass
and grossly overadvertised
It turns a genius to an ass
and makes a fool think he is wise
It could make you regret your birth
or turn cartwheels in your best suit
It costs a lot more than it’s worth
and yet there is no substitute
They keep it on a higher shelf
the older and more pure it grows
It has no color in itself
but it can make you see rainbows
You can find it on the Bowery
or you can find it at Elaine’s
It makes your words more flowery
It makes the sun shine, makes it rain
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
-Love is Like a Bottle of Gin (1999)