There has already been volumes of material written on this 3CD, 171 minute opus by Stephin Merritt, so I'm not going to go on about every track and what it means. Not only have Spin and Rolling Stone picked it among the best of 1999, but it's been a crowd favorite as well, selling out its first printing in an amazingly fast time. It forced Merge to hop on things and start pressing more of them as the masses catch wind of the amazing (and quite prolific) songwriting abilities of Merritt. It's not like he's a new name, either. The Magnetic Fields have been around for quite awhile releasing albums, and Merritt has also done work in side groups like The 6ths and Future Bible Heroes' Memories Of Love. Basically, he's a great artist who's finally getting his due acknowledgments.
If one can believe it, Merritt originally envisioned the project as one of 100 songs, then thought about cutting it down to 26 (one for each letter of the alphabet) before arriving at the 69 song, 3CD set configuration. The CDs are also sold as individual volumes, but if you want to experience everything, it's best to just splurge a little bit for once and snag it up. Although there are a couple tracks that don't work as well, almost every song on the offering is hummable, and many of the songs will have you singing them for days as you find yourself arguing with yourself over which disc is going to occupy the space in your player (and makes a good argument for multi-disc changers). With the box set, you also get a large booklet in which Merritt talks about the thought process behind each song that offers some nice insight to the epic release.
As I've said before, there are tons and tons of highlights, but you'll realize that as soon as you pop in the first disc and hear the track "Absolutely Cuckoo." It's a silly little short number with vocals by Merritt that are arranged as almost a round with himself. It's a funny and completely infectious beginning. "The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side" is another real winner on the first disc with it's strumming guitars and quirky little keyboard effects. Not only can Merritt croon like Leonard Cohen, but he can lighten things up to fit perfectly alongside anything else. He's also smart enough to realize that by using his song on every song of a 69 track release might get a little repetitive, and uses several other vocalist to great effect on tracks like "Come Back From San Francisco" and "Boa Constrictor."
The second disc takes a few more liberties with the almost completely freestyle "Love Is Like Jazz." The accordian and bass strumming seem a bit disconcerting, but it works well in the point that it's trying to make and fits right along with the lyrics. "Time Enough For Rocking When We're Old" is one of those tracks where Merritt goes more into crooner mode and the slow, delicate track is beautiful. The one-two punch of the country tinged "Kiss Me Like You Mean It" and "Papa Was A Rodeo" show off two very different styles of songwriting, but still work together somehow.
The third disc starts off just as catchy with the ode to running around almost nekkid called "Underwear." Just in case you hadn't heard enough styles, he injects the very next track "It's A Crime" with just enough touch of reggae to give things yet another flavor. Some other highlights of the disc include the smokey, back alley sounding "Love In The Shadows," the trade-off vocals of "Yeah, Oh Yeah!" and the totally 80's sounding, "I Can't Touch You Anymore."
One of the other amazing things about the 69 songs is just how much variety there are among them. Merritt manages to take little bits of style from jazz, rock, pop, country, and blues while injecting it all with a very unique (and sometimes more experimental) style all of his own. He literally jumps styles of music effortlessly, all the while managing to pull things together with touching and inventive lyrics. Although some of the songs definitely drift into more of a cheesy styles, there will be several different times over the course of listening to these discs where the lyrics feel so natural that you'll wished you would have written them first. Basically, the great words you've been hearing about the release have been true and although there are a few mis-steps and tracks that feel kind of like filler, it's an amazing release and proof that someone can release a 3CD set of great original music. One of the best releases of the year.