The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea
By: Taylor Peters
The Magnetic Fields and Stephin Merritt have always made a career of walking fine lines. There is, of course, the obvious one, that of balancing shtick against content, or overkill with “just enough” (see 69 Love Songs) but the list goes on. For instance, the three albums preceding this one (the so-called “no synth trilogy” of i, Distortion and, most recently, Realism) have walked the tricky line of trying to skewer what they simultaneously embody (e.g. with the folky/strictly acoustic bent of Realism being aimed directly at the seemingly unkillable and perennially inane authenticity argument in pop music). It’s a hard trick, this balance. There’s a reason why two of the three albums in the “no-synth trilogy” fall so flat: past a certain point no amount of winking and asking the audience to appreciate how clever you are can make up for the fact that you’re propagating a critically suspect approach to art.
In light of all this, Love at the Bottom of the Sea at first seems a refreshing change of pace from its rule bound predecessors- possibly a return to the highs of Get Lost or Holiday. And indeed, the first three songs, especially the absolutely excellent unrequited love complaint “Andrew in Drag,” introduce the promise of a satisfying rush of Merritt’s tin-pan alley by way of indie pop style of songwriting. However, right around the time Shirley Simms rhymes “y’all” with “infinitely small” in “Your Girlfriend’s Face” (track three, mind), things start to go sour.
What follows is at best merely boring, and at worst, trite, facile, and, in places, simply obnoxious: almost pure shtick. Further, few of the songs here make it out of bland mid-tempo pace. Take for example the so-obvious-I’m-almost-convinced-they’ve-used-it-before punning song title of “I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh,” a song so plodding and non-descript I completely missed it on my first three listen-through of the album, and whose melody I would be hard pressed to recall even now. The rhymes on this album come easily, too easily. As such they magnify the sense that the substance found on superior Magnetic Fields albums is sorely lacking. Instead of Merritt’s often signature clever turns, we’re treated to verified non-gems such as “derrière/Pied-a-terre,” and the above-mentioned “y’all/small.”
Of course, there are high points; it’s not like Merritt has totally lost his touch. “Andrew in Drag” is probably among the better Magnetic Fields songs of all time, and songs like “Quick!” and “God Wants us to Wait” are very solid. Though there is certainly promise in the band’s return to albums less focused on making arguments, this work seems like a band in the process of re-focusing, rather than anything resembling a unified musical statement.
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