Friday, April 15, 2016

Final Songs: Zebra

Album: 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields
So we got married in Venice in June
So what?
We circled the Earth in a hot air balloon
So what?
and the rest of our lives
is one long honeymoon
well, that doesn't mean we're in love
If you really loved me
you'd buy me a beautiful pearl
but you've already bought me
all of the pearls in the world
so there's one thing I crave
when my days become ho-hum and blah
I want a zebra
We've got so many tchotchkes
we've practically emptied the Louvre
In most of our palaces
there's hardly room to manoeuvre
I shan't go to Bali today
I must stay home and Hoovre
up the gold dust
That doesn't mean we're in love
If you really loved me
you'd buy me the Great Pyramid
Oh, I'm so forgetful, you already did
But there's one think I need
if you won't think I'm greedy, my dear
another zebra
Zelda looks lonely, I want a zebra 
69 Love Songs  The title is intended as a joke, yes. The number isn't exactly random. But there are sixty-nine songs. To be more specific it's a three disc set with twenty-three songs apiece. Okay, "song" might be stretching it in a couple of places. And of the ones that are songs, not all are necessarily good. "Meaningless" lives up to its title. Still, it's a monumental accomplishment.

Are they actually all love songs? Well, not all straight-ahead ones, and I think I can say that with some relief. They all touch on love. With a lot of cynicism and detachment, and not a little surrealism. Same-sex marriage wasn't a legal option in 1999, but I don't think legal marginalization accounts for why Stephen Merritt takes a skew approach to the subject, at least not directly. As far as the actual reasons go, for one thing, that many unironic love songs in one sitting could be pretty mind-numbing. Also, love doesn't always mean what it's supposed to mean. In many cases it means that a person has moved beyond "fuck you, I've got mine" to "fuck you, we've got ours."

And here, galloping through a veldt of absurdity, comes "Zebra." It's a spare recording. Claudia Gonson sings, and might be playing the very minimal drums. (She's the drummer, as a rule.) If I had to guess I'd say that Merritt is playing the harmonium or the like while Daniel Handler plays accordion. Yes, Lemony Snicket is a friend and associate of the band.

The lyrics are a burlesque of a wealthy person whose only desire is to have more, more, more. It's sort of like a New Yorker cartoon of the filthy rich. There's a certain innocence to it as well. Buying pyramids and letting wild animals roam the halls of your mansion is a child's idea of what it's like to be rich. Or it was. Children may be more sophisticated now. Gonson's phrasing is fully in character, conveying the ennui of the sitcom socialite.

In "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure", another song from disc 3 of 69 Love Songs, the pioneering philosopher of language throws his hands up and declares "We don't know anything, I don't know anything about love." In ending the project with "Zebra" Merritt seems to be admitting the truth of this statement. There's not going to be any grand closing statement here, which is a kind of statement in itself. And there are hints on how to spot a gold digger.


semiconscious said...

magnetic fields is a new one on me. sampling '69 love songs', it's sorta like listening to what the residents' 'commercial album' might've sounded like if done by they might be giants? maybe? (&, speaking of 'the commercial album' - always one of my favorites! - did you know it features a lena lovich guest appearance?...

so, yeah, thanks for introducing me to magnetic fields. i've always enjoyed this kinda stripped-down, simplistic approach to making music, & zebra's lyrics are well-suited to it. of course, i suppose any band having lemony snicket as an honorary member is always well worth a listen...

&, on the subject of 'final songs', i realized a few days ago that there're some 'final songs' that are probably best not reflected on very much, if at all. the one that brought this to mind is 'prairie rose', from roxy music's 'country life'. while it's a great song, as you may or may not recall, it's bryan ferry's ode to his, at that time, main squeeze: jerry hall. sweet dreams! :) ...

Ben said...

I like your comparison. It's not one I would have necessarily thought of on my own, but it feels right. Oh, and it wasn't just Lene, although once she made herself available I guess there was no way the Residents could say no. They also had Andy Partridge fro XTC on the same album.

Yeah, Merritt and Handler apparently have another project called the Gothic Archies that dramatizes... no, scratch that, puts to music the Unfortunate Events books. (They're already dramatic, obviously.) Not sure how their friendship formed but it seems to be a productive one.

Out of perversity I may have to do "Prairie Rose" one of these days. It's got that sweeping pedal steel guitar. (Maybe they wanted something to live up to the "country" part?) Jerry Hall, man. Losing your girl to Mick Jagger is sad, but you can see it coming. When she goes on to Rupert Murdoch next, your head's gotta spin.