This is the 109th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
By the end of the 1990s, Stephin Merritt had already shown he was a versatile musician, tapping into several musical styles and traditions with numerous projects, chiefly The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes.
At some point, Merritt later told The San Francisco Bay Guardian, he was in a gay piano bar in Manhattan, listening to a pianist play Stephen Sondheim songs. Merritt recalled thinking, “I really should get into theater music, because I’d be good at it.” Merritt said:
Half the songs I like were written for the theater, and you know, I’m a show tune kind of guy. I decided I’d write one hundred love songs as a way of introducing myself to the world. Then I realized how long that would be. So I settled on 69. I’d have a theatrical revue with four drag queens. And whoever the audience liked best at the end of the night would get paid.
The theatrical revue never materialized, but the songs did. In 1999, The Magnetic Fields released “69 Love Songs,” a three-disc set exploring the genre and tropes of love songs. Merritt and his collaborators deftly weaved synth pop, folk, and approximately 37 other genres into a sprawling opus that nearly two decades later remains one of his most revered works.
One of the many masterpieces on “69 Love Songs” was “The Book of Love,” which Merritt told The A.V. Club was a song in which “I’m exploring the way the different clichés interact.” According to The Guardian, Merritt wrote the song in a cafe in New York after hearing The Miracles’ “Best of My Love.” That got him thinking of The Eagles’ “Best of My Love,” which was connected to The Miracles’ song in name only. What if Merritt wrote a song that had the same name as an existing song? Among the many songs he had on his mind was The Monotones’ “The Book of Love,” so he decided to write a song with that title.
Lyrically, though, Merritt went in a different direction:
The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It’s full of charts and facts and figures
And instructions for dancing
But I, I love it when you read to me
And you, you can read me anything
The book of love has music in it
In fact that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb
But I, I love it when you sing to me
And you, you can sing me anything
The book of love is long and boring
And written very long ago
It’s full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes
And things we’re all too young to know
But I, I love it when you give me things
And you, you ought to give me wedding rings
I, I love it when you give me things
And you, you ought to give me wedding rings
“That title – there was so much to write and so much to say,” Merritt told The Guardian. “It’s a bit like I’m saying ‘Our love has boring periods, but that’s marriage, dear.'”
The song has become a hit at weddings, with Merritt having been asked to play it for at least three weddings. But it’s not just the Magnetic Fields’ version that people want at their weddings.
Peter Gabriel first recorded “The Book of Love” for the soundtrack of the 2004 movie “Shall We Dance?” starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez.
Another version appeared six years later on Gabriel’s covers album, “Scratch My Back.” Throughout 2010, Gabriel released songs from the album as singles, with the artists that Gabriel covered reciprocating by covering one of his songs. The single of his version of “The Book of Love” included Merritt’s cover of Gabriel’s “Not One of Us.”
Gabriel told The Quietus he “was introduced through a friend to the Magnetic Fields, and really fell in love with the song writing and the quirky way the band interpreted their material.” Merritt praised Gabriel’s covers, telling The A.V. Club:
I think it’s fantastic. If I could sing like Peter Gabriel, I wouldn’t have to write songs. It’s a totally different interpretation. My arrangement and recording of it is emphatically skeletal and all about the insufficiency and helplessness, whereas his sounds like he’s God singing to you about his creation.
There’s another reason Merritt could appreciate that cover: it paid for the down payment on his house in Los Angeles. That makes sense, because Gabriel’s version has been used prominently multiple times beyond “Shall We Dance?” It was in the “Scrubs” season finale…
…and in an episode of “South Park.”
As such, Gabriel’s version is likely the best known of all the covers of “The Book of Love.” But there have been many more.
Canadian singer Patricia O’Callaghan covered “The Book of Love” on her 2004 album, “Naked Beauty.” Her arrangment was even sparser than the Magnetic Fields version, which made her vocals stand out.
Tracey Thorn, one half of the duo Everything But The Girl, included two Magnetic Fields covers on her 2007 EP, “Raise the Roof.” Her version of “The Book of Love” was not as bare as the original by the Magnetic Fields, but it sounded more earnest, like Gabriel’s version. But just as interesting was her slowed-down cover of “Smoke and Mirrors” from The Magnetic Fields’ “Get Lost.”
Former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty has covered Magnetic Fields a few times, playing “Grand Canyon” and “Strange Powers” at some radio station appearances. Doughty’s voice is so distinct that it can be distracting to hear his recognizable voice singing a recognizable song like “The Book of Love.” But after a few listens, the distraction is gone, and one can appreciate just how much Doughty must love this band. It’s easy to glean that the only thing that separates him from fanboys like me is that he has gotten to record himself singing these songs, whereas I have only gotten to sing them in the car. And the shower.
Nataly Dawn is one half of Pomplamoose, a duo I mentioned when reviewing covers of “Video Killed The Radio Star.” As part of Pomplamoose, Dawn performs upbeat, quirky covers. But when she covered “The Book of Love” on her own, she performed a sweetly subdued version that was just as adorable as the video that went with it.
In 2010, The Airborne Toxic Event released “All I Ever Wanted: Live From Walt Disney Concert Hall Featuring The Calder Quartet.” In addition to original material, the band covered a few songs, including Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses.” But the band’s version of “The Book of Love” stood out, because Mikel Jollett explained that he was dedicating the song to his grandmother, who had recently passed away. Before she died, Jollett’s grandmother had asked him to play her a song, but not one of his band’s songs. He played her “The Book of Love,” and she had approved.
With just her voice and a ukelele, Deborah Pardes covered 11 songs on her 2010 album, “A Little Something.” Her bare version of “The Book of Love” both highlighted her talent while paying tribute to The Magnetic Fields. It’s hard to think of an instrument more appropriate for a cover of a Stephin Merritt song than a ukelele. (Though there are some more covers coming with other instruments and they are also pretty!)
Welsh singer Catherine Anne Davies has performed using the stage name The Anchoress, as well as the name Catherine A.D. In 2012, Catherine A.D. released “Reprise: The Covers Collection,” which included a dreamy version of “The Book of Love.” Without her voice, this softer track would sound like a lullaby.
2CELLOS is a duo comprising Croatian cellists Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser, who use their classical sound to recast modern pop songs. The pair has tackled “The Book of Love” a few times, recording a version with Australian singer Mark Vincent…
…and with Zucchero, for an Italian translation called “Il Libro Dell ‘Amore.” In both instances, the covers sounded less like The Magnetic Fields’ version and more like Gabriel’s version with its soaring strings.
“Saturday Night Live” alum Ana Gasteyer released an album of covers in 2014. “I’m Hip” had a musical theatre vibe to it, which makes sense, given her Broadway history. It’s odd to hear her sing if your main point of entry is her comedy, but refreshingly odd. She’s not too earnest, and I can almost imagine her winking at some of the funnier parts of the song.
Irish singer-songwriter Gavin James included the “The Book of Love” on “Live at Whelans” in 2015…
…and on his debut album, “Bitter Pill.” Thing is, that recorded version wasn’t much different from his live sound, given his acoustic style. His cover of “The Book of Love” peaked on the charts in Belgium at Number 10.
The London-based Chaps Choir released a recording of “The Book of Love” on a split single with Samantha Whates, benefitting charity. “The Book of Love” sounded cheerful and earnest coming from a gleeful choir, particularly when the original version came from the baritone voice of Merritt.
In 2017, a version of “The Book of Love” appeared on the soundtrack of a movie of the same name, starring Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, and Jessica Biel. The poppy version was by Atlanta band, The Shadowboxers. Justin Timberlake served as the composer and music supervisor for the film, which might explain why there is a subtle but familiar sound in this version of “The Book of Love.”
Of all these covers, the most famous one over the last two decades still seems to be Gabriel’s version. And one can hear the influence of that version on other covers, particularly in how orchestral some of them have been. Hearing how pretty these can be, it’s no surprise that this song has become a wedding favorite.
For his part, Merritt has been surprised. “When I wrote it, it never occurred to me that it’d become a wedding song,” he told The Guardian. “I mean, I know it ends with the line about wedding rings, but it begins with the line ‘The book of love is long and boring.’ I can’t think of anything less romantic.”