Review Summary: "A pity she does not exist, a shame he's not a fag... The only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag."
Although you're safe in the knowledge that you're following one of the most charming and dependable bands in the indie world, being a fan of The Magnetic Fields can still be mightily frustrating. This emotion stems largely from the fact that Stephen Merritt constantly places checks and barriers on his own creativity, and although this has resulted in some wonderful achievements the argument that he's distilling his own outrageous talent is equally compelling. 69 Love Songs
is obviously the prime example of this somewhat curious approach paying dividends, but the synth-less trilogy of i
released since have fared less well, with numerous instances of Merritt's genius weighed down by a lack of consistency brought about by such restrictions. The gems within those records were worth the price of purchase alone, but all three left a distinct sense of what could have been, and to all intents and purposes, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
is a continuation of that pattern.
As it happens, this 10th studio album is the first Magnetic Fields record in well over a decade which doesn't possess a clear theme, though in practise it's clear that Merritt's attitude has hardly shifted. At a mere 35 minutes, this is a markedly concise record, without a single track reaching the three minute mark. It's a feature which ensures that none of these songs outstay their welcome, but on too many occasions you get the impression that they've been cut-off in the interests of brevity, when in reality they could well benefit from a level of expansion. It's true that Merritt and his band are among the best in the business at delivering short and sharp indie pop gems, but with the creative freedom afforded by the return of synths to their pallet, it's difficult to avoid feeling that with further application this record could have been so much more.
However, what's done is done, and for what it's worth, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
does ultimately stand as yet another thoroughly likeable Magnetic Fields offering. As with the majority of their catalogue, it's the highlights which make it a worthwhile exercise, and throughout its course they're in no short supply. Undoubtedly the jewel in the crown is 'Andrew In Drag,' the lead single which displays is spades practically everything that one could possibly want from a Stephen Merritt composition. Striking a pitch perfect balance between his lovelorn lyricism and typically quirky sense of humour, it's a song which is touching, disturbing and hilarious all in one, and although the record has other excellent moments it truly stands out as a beacon of awkward, homoerotic light. Elsewhere, 'Your Girlfriend's Face' makes full use of the returning synths, positively sizzling with sex despite its good intentions, while 'My Husband's Pied-A-Terre' holds arguably the most potent vocal hook on offer, with Claudia Gonson making the utmost of her admittedly limited vocal abilities.
Although these are particularly successful examples of Merritt's songcraft, what's arguably even more pleasing is the fact that there's not a single number among the 15 which doesn't satisfy in some capacity. That's not to say that it's a particularly consistent record - the aforementioned condensation undermines it in that respect - but its vibrancy ensure that there's never a dull moment, something which can't be said for any of its immediate predecessors. As such, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
stands as a surprisingly refreshing listen from a band who are relishing in their new found liberty - despite their apparent reluctance to embrace it.