Song 45: The Magnetic Fields, “The Book of Love” (1999)Posted: February 14, 2013
I first heard The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs while backpacking around Europe, a sentence that makes me sound like a giant asshole. But it’s true, and it was an amazing way to experience it. I remember lying on the floor of a hostel in Paris called the Young and Happy (which is apparently still there), looking out the window in the middle of the night, and listening to this song. Young, happy, in Paris and hearing “The Book of Love” for the first time. Not bad.
This is one of the most beautiful songs I know, and also one of the funniest. How Stephin Merritt pulled that off without one taking away from the other, I’ll never know. The song’s initial appeal is the production, with reverb that makes it sound like it’s being performed in a church. To hear someone sing “some of it is just really dumb” in that context is not only funny, but it makes the song sound that much more accurate. Some of this is sentimental bullshit, and some of it is sentimental and real. The church sound, after all, the real, lasts the entire song, as if sentimentality and emotion win out in the end.
69 Love Songs employs the tension between the real and the bullshit across its three discs, and this song uses it most succinctly; Merritt’s voice, low and (seemingly) deadly serious, is the perfect instrument to convey it. The line that gets me the most is “things we’re all too young to know.” Despite everything we do for each other, the dancing, the heart-shaped boxes, and yes, the love songs, we don’t know what we’re doing. Which is what makes the many, many rewards so rewarding.