“More than love, I think,” the Magnetic Fields’ songwriter Stephin Merritt said in an interview last year, “I care about popular music.” On the band’s extraordinary new 69 Love Songs (Merge)–a three-CD collection that in fact contains 69 love songs–he often directs his serenades to beloved music instead of beloved people: one acoustic tune is addressed to the acoustic guitar itself, and the subject of “My Only Friend” is Billie Holiday; there’s “Punk Love” on the first disc, “World Love” on the second, and “Experimental Music Love” on the third. Merritt’s a worthy suitor, a brilliant tunesmith whose lyrics seem lighter than air until they land on your heart. His stabs at “genre music” are deliberately plastic (nobody’s ever uttered a less convincing “Whoa, Nellie!” than Merritt in his country pastiche “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off”), and he’s a cynical bastard (the album’s closer is the alphabetically last “Zebra,” a waltz about conspicuous consumption as proof of love). But jokes like “Blue You” (“the blues,” Merritt croons dramatically, “were singin’…the blues”) and the Ace of Base pisstake “It’s a Crime” are balanced by understated, desolate tearjerkers like “I Shatter,” and 69’s best songs work on both levels: “Papa Was a Rodeo” (“Home was anywhere with diesel gas / Love was a trucker’s hand”) starts as camp but gradually turns into drama. For some of the shows on this tour, Merritt’s performing half the 69 songs in sequence; the band features his longtime onstage foil Claudia Gonson on piano, John Woo on banjo and guitar, and Sam Davol on cello. Friday, 10 PM, Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee; 773-489-3160. DOUGLAS WOLK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alicia Aguilera.