Friday, September 19, 2014

Sequencing 69 Love Songs

Sequencing is an under-appreciated art. Putting everything in the right order is a big part of the game; the ebb and flow of an album is very important, and if you put no thought into the running order, you'll usually end up with a disjointed mess, even if each track is individually very good.

Still, the average album only has about twelve tracks, and just because you're able to arrange a dozen songs into something cohesive doesn't mean that you'll be able to do the same for a three-disc behemoth like 69 Love Songs.

For the last couple of days, I've had my nose buried in LD Beghtol's book about Stephin Merritt's masterpiece, and of all the titbits contained therein, perhaps the most interesting came from Jeff Lipton, who was responsible for mastering the album:

"One of the main functions of mastering is to make an album flow as a cohesive piece. This was very challenging and complicated because the songs were all in varying recording qualities and styles. And since song order hadn't been decided, I had to work not knowing which songs would be next to each other on the final discs. It was important that all 69 of them could work in any order."

(Lipton in Beghtol 2006:86)

Oof, it's been a while since I used Harvard Referencing. A lot of people say that 69 Love Songs was an album "made for shuffling", and so the latter part of the above quotation ("It was important that...") is very revealing indeed. Stephin Merritt sent his sixty-nine songs off for mastering without any solid idea of how they would be sequenced; Jeff Lipton went out of his way to ensure that the songs would flow smoothly regardless of the order in which they were played. Does this mean that the actual running order - starting from Absolutely Cuckoo and ending on Zebra, with Promises of Eternity smack in the middle - is completely arbitrary?

One could certainly make that argument. The 69 Love Songs lyric booklet lists the songs in alphabetical (rather than sequential) order, and I'm sure I once read that Stephin Merritt had originally planned to do it that way; to simply release the whole set in alphabetical order and have done with it.

But he didn't do that (thank goodness - Abigail, Belle of Kilronan would make a terrible opening track), and so we have to assume that the 'real' order actually does carry some weight. After all, why would he bother to jumble them up if an alphabetical running order would have been equally meaningful?

Or, indeed, equally Meaningless?

So, knowing that the proper order wasn't selected at random, we must ask...why that order? How did Stephin decide where to place each of those sixty-nine tracks? The 33 1/3 book offers a big clue, referring to Volume 1 as 'The Pop Album', Volume 2 as 'The Ballads Album', and Volume 3 as 'The Comedy Album'.

Assigning a theme to each disc would have made things much easier from a sequencing perspective, splitting the project into three (marginally) more manageable chunks. Naturally, those categories aren't completely lucid - there are poppy moments outside of Disc 1 (Long-Forgotten Fairytale), ballads outside of Disc 2 (Busby Berkeley Dreams), and funny moments outside of Disc 3 (How Fucking Romantic). But hey, it's a starting point.

Once the songs had been sorted into volumes, I imagine that Stephin decided on a first and last track for each disc and went from there. If you ask me, nothing could replace Absolutely Cuckoo at the very beginning of the journey - this is a song, remember, whose first four words are "don't fall in love", so obviously it's the perfect opening gambit for an album called '69 Love Songs'. Roses (Volume 2) and Underwear (Volume 3) are slightly less obvious openers, but hey, both make for strong starts.

The closers, meanwhile, are unimpeachable. The Things We Did and Didn't Do is a gloriously melancholy song that, in spite of its <2min runtime, seems to echo on endlessly (I don't usually endorse fading out as a means of ending a song, but in this case I think it works perfectly). I Shatter is even sadder, to the point where a short breather is absolutely necessary after those strange strings and Stephin's deep-sea vocals have finally let up.

At first, Zebra seems to have been chosen as the 69th track simply because its title begins with the letter 'Z' - a remnant of the initial plan to order the tracks A-Z. But I think it's too bizarre, too wilfully quirky an ending to have been chosen by default; the ludicrous final chord (you can almost hear the jazz hands) was tailor-made for the finish line. Like Mansun's An Open Letter to the Lyrical Trainspotter (from Attack of the Grey Lantern), Zebra is a goofy grin that reminds the listener not to take any of the preceding nonsense too seriously, and I think that Stephin Merritt was entirely aware of this when he placed it at the tail end of Disc 3.

Okay, we've got the bookends did he decide what to put in between? Listening to the album, I suspect that Merritt's main aim was to switch up the genre at every turn, to keep things varied with each new track (this, apparently, was the approach used by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies on their Rapid City Muscle Car album). Let's take the first few songs from Volume 3 as an example:
  1. Underwear (Dirty, gyrating Casio sexmusik)
  2. It's a Crime ('Swedish Reggae', according to Stephin Merritt)
  3. Busby Berkeley Dreams (Hyper-romantic piano weepy)
  4. I'm Sorry I Love You (Upbeat samba-type thing)
  5. Acoustic Guitar (Intimate bedroom folk)
You get the idea. It's not that The Mags don't repeat themselves, genre-wise, over the course of the album's three-hour runtime; it's just that any similar-sounding songs are generally kept as far apart as possible. At least 2 of the 69 sound like lost Jesus & Mary Chain tunes, but Yeah! Oh, Yeah! and When My Boy Walks Down the Street are separated by no fewer than 29 other songs. Even when the same genre appears twice on the same disc (Very Funny and My Only Friend aren't dissimilar, stylistically speaking), Merritt had the requisite nous to put a bunch of other genres (Synth romance! Anthemic folk! Fleetwood Mac!) in between.

I can only speculate, obviously, but this is how I reckon Merritt mapped it all out. Of course, there are some tracks that simply had to go together - there's a nice brace of heart-themed songs in the middle of Volume 1, and the titles of No One Will Ever Love You and If You Don't Cry form a sentence that perfectly summarises the sentiments of both - but by and large, I feel that genre-hopping was always the primary objective during that marathon sequencing session.

That said, it's only human nature to see patterns and logic where there is none - I'm sure I'd be saying "oh, you can see why he's put that there" even if the running order had been completely random. Still, if the aforementioned Promises of Eternity ("What if the show didn't go ooo-ooo-on?") just so happened to land in the very middle of the album, that's one hell of a coincidence.

If you fancy covering a track from 69 Love Songs, click here - there are still plenty of great songs available, including My Sentimental Melody, Promises of Eternity, and If You Don't Cry. Email if you'd like to reserve one.

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