The Magnetic Fields – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea

The Magnetic Fields – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea

3/5

2012

For three albums and 13 years, Stephin Merritt abstained from using synths on any Magnetic Fields records, releasing the so-called “no-synth trilogy” of i, Distortion, and Realism over the course of the last decade. So by returning to digital equipment for the first time since his magnum opus, 1999’s 69 Love Songs, and by using “love” in its title, Merritt unintentionally makes Love At The Bottom Of The Sea seem like a true follow-up to that record, as if the last three albums were specialist projects, and he’s finally getting down to the real work here. To a certain extent, that’s true, but it’s also misleading. Whereas 69 was massive in its scope and ambition, Bottom Of The Sea‘s goals are considerably more modest. Though the Magnetic Fields aren’t limiting themselves to certain instruments or styles anymore, this isn’t a return to the all-over-the-map genre-hopping of 69; rather, it frequently recalls the synth-pop of earlier Fields records like The Charm Of The Highway Strip. Also, unlike nearly every other Magnetic Fields album, there isn’t a discernible overarching theme here, unless you are counting various pitfalls of modern romance. (Though if you do count that, consider 95% of the history of pop music one giant concept album.)

So though Bottom Of The Sea may be slight, it still offers what makes the band so appealing in the first place. Merritt remains one of the sharpest (yet most underrated) songwriters around, crafting lyrics that cut deeply one moment and have you break up with laughter the next, even as he still refuses to write from the heart. Take, for instance, “Andrew In Drag” and its story of a poor soul who only has eyes for his friend—but only when that friend crossdresses:  “I’ll never see that girl again/He did it as a gag/I’ll pine away forevermore for Andrew in drag.” It’s true that he doesn’t always hit the admittedly high mark he’s set for himself, yet what ultimately hinders the album is the music and production. While it’s understandable that the group was excited to take advantage of all the new electronic equipment that’s been developed in the last decade, the album’s dense amalgam of rippling noise, pulsing rhythms and robotic squelches sometimes threatens to overwhelm the simple, traditional pop songs at its heart.  Merritt can never really be accused of sincerity, but many of his best songs and words feel stunningly emotional and true, like old standards begging for interpretation.  Here, though, the weight of his words and music is too often lost in the new wave sheen. A few tracks like “The Horrible Party” and “Quick!” indeed benefit from this approach; however, many otherwise fine songs like “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” and “The Only Boy In Town” are left high and dry. Perhaps it was necessary for Merritt to indulge his synth-pop obsessions with this album—after all, he’d been holding back since the Clinton years—yet since he overdoes it and tries little else, the songs on Love At The Bottom Of The Sea don’t feel as smart, funny or pretty as they should. Still, even if it’s an easier album to admire than love, enough of it works for it to be a worthwhile listen for fans.

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Posted on March 2, 2012, in The Magnetic Fields. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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