All mush aside

Over three CDs and 69 songs, the Magnetic Fields take a scalpel to love in all its forms.

CATHOLIC SCHOOL MAY not be the most logical place to look for someone to lay down a few harsh words about love, and you certainly shouldn't expect someone in the clergy to dish out advice. Nonetheless, during my sophomore year of high school, that's what I got during a weekly mandatory counseling session called "Seminar."

The girls and boys were segregated and divided up into small groups, then shoved into a small room where one of the Brothers or Sisters of St. Jean the Baptist de la Salle would try and be semi-hip, talking to us about our feelings and the tough issues facing us teenagers. My Seminar leader, Brother Michael, was a 40-year-old celibate Merit smoker who reminded me of sandpaper. In other words, the perfect man to deliver love lessons.

One day, Brother Michael began to discuss our raging hormones and the girls who drove us all crazy. "Girls misuse the word 'love' more than boys," he said. "They throw it around with just about anything: 'Oh, I love this song! I love this cheeseburger! I love this movie!' You may get jazzed thinking about how a girl has told you that she loves you. How does it feel to be in the same league with a cheeseburger?" After we finished laughing, Brother Michael leaned forward and delivered his kill line. "If you have these feelings and you want to call them something honest, call it what it is. Call it fucking. Dogs fuck, animals fuck, people fuck. Fucking."

And pop music, as Frank Zappa once said, is almost always all about the phrase "I love you." Brother Michael and Zappa's words are ringing in my head more and more as I peer at the musical end of the millennium. Millennium, as in the unstoppable Backstreet Boys CD of the same name, where clean-shaven men make ridiculous declarations of heartfelt devotion, etc., that are warping the key sales demographic in Music 1999: girls under 25.

Owing to the bottomless pool of disposable income these chicks have, the past 10 years of American radio have gone from Def Leppard singing "Love Bites" to Trent Reznor wanting to fuck you like an animal to N'Sync pleading pitifully for them girls to stop tearing up their hearts. Shallow, yes, but the girls like it enough to trade cash for it. In the real world, if you want it that way you better be prepared to bend over.

The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt gets it, though. You could easily read into the title of the Fields' new three-CD set on Merge Records, 69 Love Songs. Sounds like a cheap joke? Well, it is, but it's a cheap joke built of necessity. Merritt conceived the idea of writing and recording 100 love songs, but pared it down to 69 in an effort to establish a beachhead of brevity. The majority of the material that comprises the first Fields release since 1995's Get Lost isn't so much about "I love you" as what happens when Merritt's musical protagonists don't hear the same thing back. For every upbeat, self-explanatory track like "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits," there's dismal honesty in the form of "Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin": "It's very small and made of glass and grossly overadvertised." Try and get 5ive to lay that down and see how fast they run.

The most surprising thing about 69 Love Songs may be that, although rooted firmly in synth-pop, Merritt and Co. aren't content to make Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys rehashes. OK, so "Long-Forgotten Fairytale" sounds eerily like Erasure's "Chains of Love," but there's twang to be found in "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off," abstract swank in "Love Is Like Jazz," quirky pseudo-Lilith Fair parody on "Acoustic Guitar" (expect an Indigo Girls cover someday), and even a cappella on a couple of cuts. One such track, "How Fucking Romantic," casts a wary eye on both idealized romance and the pop songs that promised true love ("Must we really waltz?/Drag another clich頨owling from the vaults"), Merritt's dry and weary voice crushing past hopes with a mighty lyrical sigh. Make-out music still rears its head on the great plains of 69 Love Songs, but probably not enough to win the hearts of those looking for something more on the mushy side.

It's not all spilt milk and sour notes. Merritt finds love in the music of Billie Holiday ("My Only Friend"), and more frequently, dancing. There's a ton of songs here about dancing, and a few of them are even suitable for . . . uh, dancing. You may want to dance, or you may just want to sit in a corner and go through your am�fuck-ups while Merritt provides the soundtrack. Surprisingly low on filler material for a three-CD set, 69 Love Songs is enough to either make you want to swoon under someone's hefty gaze or remind you that you're too much of a realist to do so.

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