HYACINTHS AND THISTLES
There is no one else in pop like Stephin Merritt now, and 69 Love Songs is the monument that says so. Under the names The Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, The Gothic Archies and The 6ths, he has written hundreds of songs proving the artifice and wit of the pre-rock US pop machine, from Gershwin to Sondheim, still has a place in the modern world; and that it suits sounds from synthpop to shanties.
69 Love Songs was Merritt's arrogantly unmissable declaration of what he and the love song could do. Like a blue whale inches from your face, it's too big to take in all at once. There are just so many songs, flitting by so swiftly and in so many styles that, heard for the first time, it's hard to be sure if they are even any good.
The confusion is deepened by the lyrics' lightness, their desire to make you laugh. But keep listening and the variety, ludicrousness, vanity and despair of the loves Merritt delineates becomes moving. In a project where he effectively asks himself to operate all pop's disused production lines at once, from Tin Pan Alley to Hitsville, it is also a record about a love of love songs, and how art and emotion merge when you write them. And then, he can be this piercingly direct: "I don't know if you're beautiful/Because I love you too much..."
Merritt also sustains interest by switching between his baritone and other voices. With another project, The 6ths, he doesn't sing at all, instead offering his songs to interpreters including a movingly aged Odetta, a vulnerable Bob Mould, Sarah Cracknell and Gary Numan. Released only months after 69 Love Songs, Hyacinths And Thistles is more lushly musical, bathing Marc Almond in South Seas exotica and Clare Grogan in treated strings. Together, the albums are an imposing landmark.
Rating: 5 / 10