If you’re not on board with what The Magnetic Fields do by now their latest album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, isn’t likely to change your mind. Like their previous work, the new album is a collection of short songs (most clocking in at around 2 minutes) featuring varied instrumentation behind either the droning, melancholy vocals of lead songwriter Stephen Merritt or the pure, clear voice of Claudia Gonson, along with lyrics which seem to have been tossed off while Merritt pines away at the end of the bar over some new beautiful boy that has passed him by (or, even more devastating, given in to his advances).
The band has always been eclectic, with a sound that can range from power-pop to Tin Pan Alley. Unlike, say, Tom Waits, the band doesn’t explore these differing eras in musical history to hide behind a character, but to help further define their own era. The band’s body of work shows a respect and mastery of classic songwriting structure. The words may drip with wry, cynical detachment, but the music underlying the lyrics is witty and joyous.
Love at the Bottom of the Sea finds the band emerging from their self-imposed “synth-free” rule, a concept that has carried through their past three albums, i, Distortion, and Realism, which were in turn a reaction to the synthesizer heavy three disc box set 69 Love Songs. The new record starts of dancy and fun, propelled by synthesizer anthems “God Wants Us To Wait” and “Andrew in Drag”. “God Wants Us To Wait” in particular is driven by a synth hook straight out of the 80s, an aesthetic that defines the album as a whole. The entire work seems to be a conscious throw back to a dayglo pop world. “Andrew in Drag” finds Merritt taking the role of a high society boy confused by his attraction to another man. It’s is a gloriously catchy bit of Casio-pop with great harmonies and killer lyrics: “A pity she does not exist/a shame he’s not a fag/the only girl I ever loved/was Andrew in drag”
Other songs, like the gorgeous sing-song lullaby “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh”, would have been right at home on 69 Love Songs, but unlike that boxed set, this collection’s shorter length (the entire thing is over in just about a half hour) makes the weaker songs stand out more. And there are some very flat efforts here, like the aggravated bop of “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” or the misguided country experiment “Goin’ Back to the Country”, which beeps and crashes like the backing soundtrack to the mid 80’s NES adaptation of Gunsmoke.
Of the songs in the later half of the album, only “I Don’t Like Your Tone” and “All She Cares About is Mariachi” reach the heights promised by the buoyant opening tracks. “I Don’t Like Your Tone” is a one of Merritt’s epic pity songs, with a fully-formed tune that builds and falls like an electric waltz. The tune of “All She Cares About is Mariachi” is so good that you wish it could have landed on one of the albums in the band’s “synth-free” trilogy, and given more focus to the light Spanish guitar alone with Merritt’s echoing vocals. But, alas, the band adds a superfluous electronic layer to that song as well, and something that might have been gentle and grand becomes a bizarre amalgam. That new wave aesthetic brings the album some of its considerable charm, but also takes away much of what it could have been.
The Magnetic Fields; Love at the Bottom of the Sea: B-