Review Summary: silly, but quite serious.
We Magnetic Fields fans aren’t the kind likely to say we’d like to have a beer with our pal Stephin Merritt. In the spirit of the oldest Merritt performance, the likeliest response you’d get from extending such an invite to the world’s most cynical man would conclude with a deathly stare of the eyes and a loud request to kindly shut up. With this in mind, most won’t find Love at the Bottom of the Sea
seeking a friend among the ruins. The lyrics, at times, are rude and isolating, the suggestions that we’re going to get done in frequent and the tired insults towards various troupes sung as sarcastically as ever. And yet what interests me about the group’s tenth record is that it doesn’t sting, and I’m not sure it tries to: for Merritt, the writing is seamless, perhaps a personal backdrop for a dude just getting used to crafting music in a way he never has before. This isn’t a Merritt out of practice with synth-pop, but one who has to watch it be completely recreated before he can get his crown back. The result is an album less intriguing for its themes and more for its musical exercise: we don't necessarily know this Magnetic Fields at all, even if the wacky noises that start off “Your Girlfriend’s Face” immediately make us think we do. The synth-pop game has changed, yo.
So yeah: we're not used to this, especially after an album as resolutely inoffensive as Realism
. That may have been my favourite Magnetic Fields album, focused, as with its twin Distortion
, on its stylistic stance rather than its eye-rolling poetry. This is to say that even if Love at the Bottom of the Sea
states its formal intention is a return to synth-pop- which, itself, is essentially a declaration of “classic Magnetic Fields comeback” wish fulfilment- everything the band do here feels shockingly new, as if the albums before it proved not only how far Merritt has come, but how big the shift in music has been in the past decade. The placebo effect of the hippie folk shtick of Realism
might make the synth noises of this album sound overwhelmingly vibrant and colourful, but there’s a definite difference between the simple keyboards used on the tracks of 69 Love Songs
and those that appear here: “The Machine In Your Hand,” as a random example, is notably layered in a way a song like “Long Forgotten Fairytale” needn’t be. Essentially, this album feels harsher to listen to because it aims for more rather than less; this, coming after styles that aimed specifically to restrict, be it playing only
Jesus and Mary Chain noise rock or only
acoustic ditties, gives Love at the Bottom of the Sea
a completely new feel, rather than the nostalgia trip expected.
This explains what feels “harsh” about Love at the Bottom of the Sea
. Here is an antithetical album, less focused on the miserable synth-pop it supposedly harkens back to and instead working to be a superbly constructed piece of music, focused, at its core, on a very twee girl-guy vocal split. The album’s only real attempt to invoke ye olde nostalgia for Get Lost
is the tying of “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” to Claudia Gonson’s only tender moment on the album in “The Only Boy In Town,” but even here the intention to unify the Magnetic Fields as a band
- a band we know has two singers- dispels the idea of this being another record of Merritt’s mean writing. On Love at the Bottom of the Sea
, Gonson’s moments are far away from the delicate country twang that provided the sincerest of the band’s tearjerkers: there is little of the affection that bought “Reno Dakota” or “Acoustic Guitar,” and so her antithesis is simply in being Merritt’s melodic opposite number. Though there is no unifying hilarious theme to Love at the Bottom of the Sea
(unless you count love, and who counts love, really?), Merritt and Gonson play at the same game here, semi-comical and focused on playing up the album’s infectious, catchy pop tint. This isn’t the duo as they were once, and in that sense it’s hard not to find this album fascinating in its own way.
In that sense, “Andrew In Drag” feels like an odd, if delightful detour: it pursues a mode of song-writing we recognised in Merritt a decade ago. His challenge to gender normative song writing was a pervasive motif throughout his synth-pop era, leading up to songs that moved from he to she with a carefree joy on 69 Love Songs
, an album that distorted gender brilliantly in order to deconstruct a love song. At this point, “Andrew In Drag” is just another two minute song among a group of colourful, complicated arrangements that connect very little thematically and don’t really seem to parody
as much as play with ‘til bored. It surely works in Merritt’s favour: instead of an album of ugly, mean parodies, tracks like “God Wants Us To Wait” sound like loose vignettes that lead in from an easy target (Catholics who won’t use contraception, in this instance) but ultimately focus on a doomed Merritt or Gonson and their funny old approach to a song; the theme of “love” need not really be assigned when this feels like a band just getting used to perfecting the instruments surrounding them, having Merritt deeply infect his voice at the right place for a sugary moment. His deep, booming “too wait” on “God Wants Us To Wait” would be useless in the days of a simpler Magnetic Fields set-up, but here it feels like Merritt is more interested in designing his songs than subjecting stereotypes to his glare. “Andrew In Drag,” if anyone, is about Merritt’s lovesick shortcomings, and no one else’s- it feels like his most personal song to date, and it works in his favour.
I don’t think the first thing I see in Love at the Bottom of the Sea
is an inherent mean streak that follows Merritt around. Instead, in front of me is a band really trying to construct a record, a trait that has been commendable in each of their no-synth records and continues to play here: Merritt is an expert in the twee pop field, perhaps, but this is yet another shade of him, done with as many sugary hooks and as much dry wit. Merritt is more addicted to genre-hopping than we think- this, in itself, is more of a genre hop than a return to basics- but his music remains inherently connected to what we know of him; a cynical, stiff man deconstructing romance and woe in a hundred different ways. Love at the Bottom of the Sea
might seem harsh, but it isn’t aiming to be. If we heckle, we’ll get no response- this is Merritt in designer mood, playing with layers and music
. The joy is found in watching it take shape.