The Magnetic Fields - '(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy'
John Virtue - Landscape 568
During 1999 I filled three sketchbooks with a collage for every day of the year. These collages were mostly made up of things from the particular day in question: Items found around the classroom or in the streets; pieces torn from materials received in the post. Leafing through the books now, two things stand out: Digital promotion was still in its infancy, for the amount of printed ephemera I received really was significant; Magnetic Fields’ ’69 Love Songs’ was released on the 7th September.
This second fact has surfaced before, most notably in a piece I penned back in 2001. Ostensibly a review of the series of Magnetic Fields’ shows at the Lyric Theatre in London, where they played the ’69 Love Songs’ set in its entirity, the piece also appears to draw comparisons between Magnetic Fields and Belle & Sebastian. In hindsight this is both entirely understandable and wholly unnecessary. Clearly it was at a point at which I had lost heart somewhat with B&S and that is a shame, for they would go on to make some of their finest records after that time. Is the same true of Magnetic Fields? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly there are some who see ’69 Love Songs’ as both their pinnacle and the dead weight around their shoulders. Personally I think Stephin Merritt released equally fine records before (‘Get Lost’ remains my personal favourite) and afterwards (‘Distortion’ is as great as anything he’s ever produced), yet inevitably it is the sheer scale and consistently high quality of ’69 Love Songs’ that stands as a highlight. Well, there are far worse legacies one might be burdened with, after all.
Listening to it again now one of the things that strikes me is that perhaps it would be impossible to release such a record in 2016. Attention spans seem to be so radically trimmed to NOW! NEXT! CONSUME! DISPOSE! (itself, admittedly, an attractive kind of hyper POP concept stretched to the limits of its adhesion) that the thought of listening to a triple CD set of 69 songs in one sitting feels, well, preposterous. Perhaps it always was, and certainly there are those who will tell you that indeed was the case.
And yet ’69 Love Songs’, for all that I did so often sit down and listen to it in its entirety, is/was also a tremendous collection into which one might dip and pluck any number of treasures. In this it belies its notional position as a ‘concept’ album where Stephin Merritt explores songwriting genre, archly twisting what in other hands might be an academic project into something knowing, yet charmingly individual and almost always magical.
The song of choice therefore really could have been almost any of the 69 and on any other day it might indeed have been any other. Today however the pick is '(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy’ if only for the fact that the parentheses in the title come at the start rather than the end (in LD Beghtol’s thirty three and a third tome on ’69 Love Songs' Reggie Chamberlain-King suggests that this cements its position as the antithesis of Meatloaf’s ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’) and because I cannot think of another song that mentions Ganesh and lifts its Moog bass sound from ‘The Lies In Your Eyes’ by The Sweet. This should be enough for anyone.
During April of 2005 I happened across John Virtue’s paintings of London hanging in the National Gallery. It was both exciting and disappointing all at once. It was rather like seeing your favourite band getting into the Proper Charts and playing on Top Of The Pops whilst simultaneously knowing that the record really isn’t as good as those scratchy singles they released on an Indie label years before. On the face of it, not much had changed. The scale, style and the language of the paintings was pretty much the same as they had always been, and yet, and yet… Something had been misplaced, or at least had been lost in translation from the river Exe estuary to the skylines of London. Things became too recognisable. Too easy to relate to. No secrets for the knowing few. Maybe it was London’s fault.
Certainly Virtue’s paintings of the Exe estuary from 1997-1999 remain some of my very favourites. In scale and the language of their paint they may nod to Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock but in their sensibility they sidle up next to Constable and Turner. These are mighty giants of reference and yet I do not think Virtue’s paintings from this period particularly suffer in such company. Certainly like those others one really does need to see the work in the flesh, as it were, for scale is so crucial. That said, this is not always so easy, and if you can find a copy of the 1999 collection of Virtue’s paintings you should certainly snap it up. Leafing through it always puts me in mind of exploring the ‘mmm Skyscraper I Love You’ book accompaniment to Underworld’s ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ set and there can be few greater compliments.
Virtue has said that colour is “an unnecessary distraction” and one can certainly applaud his determination in staying true to that sentiment even if one might not always agree with it. His paintings certainly benefit from such a limited palette and when exploring the body of work what strikes one is as much the subtle differences as the threads of familiarity and similarity. As such one might want to argue that these paintings are supremely Pop in that they unapologetically stick to formula, purposefully adhere to a limited vocabulary and repeat, repeat, repeat. Perhaps those versed in Classical composition might argue the same. Perhaps not.
As with ’69 Love Songs’ then one really could drop a pin in the collection to choose one for posterity’s sake. I have opted for ‘Landscape No. 568’ partly because it of course perfectly indulges Virtue’s vice for monochromatic evocation of place, time and light as beautifully as any other from this body of work, but partly also because it is the final one in the book and thus the most likely to have actually been completed in 1999. All the parts are in place: The river Exe weaving and stretching in the fore and middle ground; the sky, in this instance brighter than at other times with clouds perhaps clearing and less glowering; the composition neatly split in half by the horizontal strip of land reaching out to Exmouth’s tip; the grounding form of a tower (perhaps All Saints Church, perhaps not) giving the hint of architectural reference. Drips, daubs, sprays of ink. Treading the line between abstract expressionism and documentary landscape. It could be anywhere, but equally it could not be anywhere but here. This should be enough for anyone.