This review originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of SPIN. In honor of the album’s 20th anniversary, we’re republishing it here.
Years in the making and spanning three CDs, this masterwork by Stephin Merritt (whose other projects include The 6ths and Future Bible Heroes) is exactly what it’s billed as; art about the most personal emotion stamped out in bulk; and a love offering in its own right.
The object of Merritt’s crazy passion? Twentieth-century popular music—all of it. He is fascinated by with how deeply moving pop can be, even—and especially—at its most generic. So he takes a crack at every love-song genre he can think of: the civic-pride anthem, the giddy cabaret number, the gospel paean that’s practically a come-on, the Motown/Abba pocket symphony, the folk conflation of an acoustic guitar with the girl it impressed, the celestial torch song, the punk knockoff, and the Tin Pan Alley excuse to rhyme “Ferdinand de Saussure” with “bulldozer,” “closure,” and “Holland-Dozier.”
69 Love Songs’ constant style-hopping keeps its three hours (!) of tunes fresh (the four guest singers who get six tracks apiece helps, too). They are all filtered through Merritt’s signature low-rent electro-acoustic production (backwoods banjos elope with chitinous synthesizers, nothing “rocks,” and everything glistens faintly with processing).
They’re all also ungodly catchy. “A melody is like a pretty girl,” Merritt croons, and it’s no secret which he likes better. About 40 of these head-turners sink in their hooks the first time through; a dozen sound like standards after two hearings, the rest make for useful punctuation. And pop hasn’t seen a lyricist of Merritt’s kind and caliber since Cole Porter.
Bittersweet, sometimes just bitter, often goofy and sentimental at once, he’s never met a love-song cliché he couldn’t twist inside-out, or make legitimately touching. “The book of love is long and boring,” he sings, “but I love it when you read to me.” Book? With 69, he’s written an encyclopedia, an epic love letter to fans that the well repays the time it takes to savor.