I was obsessed with ’69 Love Songs’ years before I knew anything much about it.
I was 16, browsing aimlessly in my local CD shop – this was during that cracked plastic era both before and after vinyl – and couldn’t help but be taken by its majestic presence near the front of the store: the stark, stylised artwork with that yin yang number on the front; the fact that it was three CDs crammed with songs all dealing in the most universal of concepts; the impossibly high price point (can’t remember exactly, but there’s no way I was dropping that much money on an unlistened whim); even the lyric booklet, which I read from front to back while the owner no doubt stared angrily and then tried to sell me one of those CD-cleaner kits that nobody bought and every store stocked. I read bits and pieces about this ambitious album over the years until I finally bought it. It’s a hard slog, cycling through genres without regard for sequencing, and I cherry-picked a few favourites, and largely ignored the rest.
Throughout the years, I found different songs appealed to me at different times; often I would hear a snippet of something in a random place, and make a note of some lyrics to later search out whatever this beacon of truth was. Quite often it was from this album, and I’d dig it out once again, play that song to death, and discover a handful of new favourites. I changed and it stayed the same. It was its own rich catalogue – complete and neat.
The concept for ’69 Love Songs’ began as an attempt by Stephin Merritt – the sole songwriter of the group – to compose a Sondheim-style theatre revue consisting of 100 love songs, inspired in part by Charles Ives’ 114 Songs, which he abandoned after releasing how epic an undertaking that would be. The idea morphed into an album – and subconsciously inspired this project, something I am only just realising while typing this, but hey!
Of course, despite being a down-scaling of his original vision, you can hardly call a triple-disc concept album containing 69 songs of wildly varying genres and moods anything but ambitious, and it’s an incredible collection with a high strike rate. Claymation pioneer Peter Gabriel later covered the lovely ‘Book Of Love’, opening Merritt’s songwriting up to an entirely new audience. He has a deep catalogue outside of this collection – as if this album wasn’t daunting enough.
‘I Don’t Want To Get Over You’ is one of the album’s standouts. It deals with Merritt’s refusal to stop wallowing in heartache, despite the knowledge that these feelings can be deadened a number of ways: sleeping pills; Prozac; an indiscriminate fling; delving into dark French philosophy; buying into the therapy he pays silly money for – they are all solutions, albeit band-aid ones. It doesn’t matter. He isn’t there yet.
One interesting thing to note about this song is that he doesn’t necessarily want to reignite the relationship, he just doesn’t want to let go of his love – and pain – just yet. He recognises that once the feelings fade, what they once had will be completely over; while ever he is holding onto this flame, there remains a bond.
The feeling in his stomach is the only remaining visceral sign their love ever existed – and Merritt isn’t ready or willing to give that away just so he can sleep at night.