Stephin Merritt has performed “The Book of Love” at a few weddings — and one funeral. The latter for his friend, the woman who lived downstairs from him in the East Village while he was writing 69 Love Songs in the late ‘90s. The notes filtered up through the New York-thin floors and soon became her favorite song — one that Merritt wrote in dark bars as an exercise in genre rather than any sort of real ode to love.
“I will never do that again, because it was very hard not to break down,” Merritt tells TIDAL, referring to the performance at her service. “That was a bad idea. Everyone was crying, including me. It was a very, very bad performance.”
As for the song’s popularity at weddings, Merritt is stumped. “I don’t understand why people think that ‘The Book of Love’ is a suitable wedding song,” he says. ‘The Book of Love’ is all about ambivalence and ambiguity of love, which doesn’t really feel like an appropriate sentiment for a wedding. But I’m happy that it’s become a wedding standard. I’m just puzzled that it’s become a wedding standard.”
Still, the charm of that track — and 69 Love Songs as a whole — is in its versatility. At first, it unfurls like a storybook love song, but the straightforward melody belies its humor: “The book of love is long and boring/No one can lift the damn thing.” The song’s craft is a reminder that — despite what it has become for two decades’ worth of fans — 69 Love Songs is very much an experiment, not an expression.
“Expression is not the point,” Merritt once told The Independent. “If I need to express something, I express it in ordinary prose. Songwriting is not about expressing something.”
Merritt went into 69 Love Songs as a kind of musical anthropologist — and satirist. He was looking to write a suite of songs that played around with the concept of love songs, digging out bottom-of-the-barrel clichés of the format, dabbling in almost every genre of the 20th century and letting his bandmates take lead vocals to bring his funny, morose songwriting experiments to life.
“69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love,” Merritt told The Independent. “It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love. The question of authenticity seems to be connected with distance.”
Merritt says that he went about working on the record like it was, well, his job. He would post up at a pair of New York bars for eight hours at a time (at each bar) and write. “I was doing absolutely nothing but writing — all day, every day,” he says. “That was the rule. I sent out an email to everyone I knew saying, ‘If you want to socialize with me at all, I will be at St. Dymphna’s and Dick’s Bar [in the East Village], but I’m not doing anything else for the next few months.”
Merritt has always written at watering holes. That’s where he got one of his favorite anecdotes, about the funny, lovelorn “Andrew in Drag” from 2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea. He has no recollection of writing the song, just of waking up in the morning with the lyrics in his notebook and the melody in his head. The implication is that he wrote it in a drunken haze.
“I still write in bars — every day,” he says. “I don’t really write every day, but I really could write every day. Some days, nothing happens — some days, I write nine songs, two of which are good.”
As such, Merritt has an entire bookshelf of notebooks — dating back to 1988 — plus two drawers of blank ones for future scribblings (“I should stop buying them for a little while…” he says with a laugh.) He sifts through them all every time he starts writing a record, and he can usually find something to work with.
“I love writing stuff that isn’t any good; it’s an important part of writing,” he says. “The muck may contain one turn of phrase that inspires another song. And sometimes a song is so bad that it can be useful in a different way. My song ‘A Chicken with Its Head Cut Off’ from 69 Love Songs is so ridiculously stupid that it works. It’s the worst possible title and that’s why it’s funny. It isn’t what I would describe by any means as a ‘good’ song. It’s so bad it’s good.”
69 Love Songs is packed with songs that toe the line between silly and genius: rattling ruminations on genre (“Love is Like Jazz”), yee-haw pastiche (“Papa was a Rodeo”) and delicious sleaze (“Underwear”). But there are also songs that endure beyond experimentation, that become wedding songs and funeral songs and songs for broken hearts: “The Book of Love,” of course, but also “Epitaph for My Heart” and “I Don’t Want to Get Over You.” Everyone has their own favorites. And that’s the charm in this sprawling exercise in romantic palpitations and emotional pain. Merritt might not have been looking to express himself, but that didn’t stop the fans from taking these songs and fitting them into their own hearts.
When asked about the impact of the record, Merritt is characteristically cagey. “I guess it’s in those ‘500 albums to listen to before you die’ books, but it hasn’t become a gigantic seller or ubiquitous in any way,” he says. “The other big record from the same moment that won the Village Voice ‘Pazz and Jop’ poll was Moby’s Play. I always felt like that was the competition.” 69 Love Songs came in second.
“He got all of these commercial placements. That album became ubiquitous. 69 Love Songs didn’t,” Merritt added — then paused. “I don’t know if anyone’s celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Moby’s Play, though… Maybe!”
Regardless of who commercially won out in the end, we doubt if any of Moby’s tracks could be played at both a wedding and a funeral.
(Photo credit: Merge Records)