When the Beatles sang "love is all you need," it was no revelation to Tin Pan Alley. For decades, love had been the principal subject of American popular song, and even Lennon and McCartney encountered a modest crisis when they--answering folk-rock's challenge--decided to abandon silly love songs. In today's pop music, though, love is often upstaged by hate. That's why it's notable that two recent albums have taken love as their subject, even if they are by performers as diametrically opposed as Barbra Streisand and the Magnetic Fields.
Having been a Top 40 regular since 1964's "People," Streisand needs little introduction. In certain circles, the Magnetic Fields are equally exalted. This New York group, a vehicle for the songs of Stephin Merritt, has been acclaimed for upholding the tradition of Noel Coward and Cole Porter. As an interpreter of other people's songs, Streisand is solidly old school, while the Fields embody the rock-era ideal of the aesthetically self-contained unit. Ironically, though, the Fields' "69 Love Songs" (Merge) is a genre exercise, while Streisand's "A Love Like Ours" (Columbia) tries to personalize the assembly-line sentiments of such contemporary easy-listening hacks as Richard Marx, Dean Pitchford and Alan & Marilyn Bergman.
Streisand didn't write any of the songs on "A Love Like Ours," yet it's indisputably a concept album. The motif is revealed by the photos of Streisand and her husband, the actor James Brolin, walking on the beach, kissing at their wedding and even snuggling in bed. "I've usually thought of love as a private matter," Streisand claims in her liner notes, but none of the singer's triumphs has ever been a private matter. As a performer and a movie director, Streisand has always taken her own image as her most inspiring subject.
"A Love Like Ours" is typical of the music Streisand has made since she largely abandoned show tunes and standards for mainstream pop. Most of the songs, played by a small soft-rock troupe supplemented by a syrupy orchestra, are showcases for the singer's rich tone and painfully mannered delivery. As usual, there's a duet with a high-profile male singer, and Streisand is sufficiently up to date to have selected country star Vince Gill. It hardly matters, though, since Gill's voice on "If You Ever Leave Me"--like the fiddle and pedal-steel guitar of another track, "We Must Be Loving Right"--is easily subsumed into Streisand's customary musical gush.
In this context, the least convincing song is actually a standard, George and Ira Gershwin's "Isn't It a Pity?" "My nights were sour/ Spent with Schopenhauer," Streisand sings gamely, but she's more at home with greeting-card sentiments than German philosophy. "If You Ever Leave Me" turns on a traditionalist country trope--"If you ever leave me/ Will you take me with you?"--while the title song and "Wait" depict her latest marriage as the holiest of matrimony. "I guess Fanny was right," writes Streisand, invoking her first hit, "people who need people are the luckiest people in the world." Yet the album's pulse seems quickened as much by narcissism as true romance. People who really need people don't spend quite so much time regarding themselves in the mirror.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)
The Magnetic Fields
Where Streisand made her name as an interpreter, Stephin Merritt began as a songwriter. In the Magnetic Fields' early days, in fact, Susan Anway was the group's vocalist. She's gone now and Merritt has taken up singing, but he still allots some of his songs to other vocalists, including keyboardist-drummer Claudia Gonson and--on this three-CD set--guest performers LD Beghtol, Dudley Klute and Shirley Simms.
As its slightly leering title suggests, "69 Love Songs" is not strictly about the more ethereal aspects of romance. "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits" counsels one playfully carnal song, and an erotic reverie finds Merritt--who's gay--celebrating "a pretty boy/ In his underwear." Matching Streisand for intellectual name-dropping, he titles a tune "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure," but most of his literary gambits are down to earth. Indeed, such songs as "I Don't Want to Get Over You" and "Acoustic Guitar" have Nashville-worthy premises. In the latter song, the vocalist warns his instrument, "I could sell you tomorrow/ Just bring me back my girl."
Gonson sings that song, and it's just one of many in which Merritt toys with gender expectations. Still, the effect often seems less revolutionary than merely tentative. Accompanied by simple synth riffs or elementary guitar or ukulele picking, many of these tunes sound unfinished, as if they were made for a more practiced singer to consummate. Such selections as "I Shatter," with its John Cale-like string part, have fuller arrangements, but most of the 69 tracks were not crafted with exceptional care.
Some of them, including such one-genre-joke songettes as "Experimental Music Love" and "Punk Love," are simply throwaways. Even better-developed songs such as "Washington, D.C." are slight: This tribute to our town as "paradise to me" because "that's where my baby lives" runs less than two minutes--and that's including an unnecessary reprise of the opening "W-A-S-H-I-N-G-T-O-N" cheer. Clearly, Merritt was hard pressed to fulfill his numerical quota and alphabetical scheme. (The album opens with "Absolutely Cuckoo" and ends with "Zebra.")
Of course, true love is not really Merritt's subject. An ironist who occasionally lances his own wit with epiphanies of genuine misery, the songwriter is ill suited for Streisand-like connubial raptures. He's more convincing when warning a new acquaintance not to fall in love with him just yet: "Give me a week or two/ To go absolutely cuckoo," he counsels. "Then when you see your error/ Then you can flee in terror." Those are not sort of the sentiments to inspire a blissful walk on the beach, but then "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" (as Merritt describes one of his protagonists) would be clueless in Malibu anyway.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)