The Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the Sea
Love at the Bottom of the Sea
Stephin Merritt is often less a musician than an avante garde artist who operates in the medium of music. This isn't to say that he isn't a great musician, nor that his work is never mainstream; in fact, his magnum opus 69 Love Songs was a masterpiece of mainstream musicianship. It simply means that for Merritt, it often seems that the gimmick at an album's center is the real driving force behind the work, that the challenge is what he relishes more than the outcome. This has lead to some brilliant high concept exercises (the aforementioned triple-album, such a height the group has struggled to get out from its shadow for the 13 years since its release, as well as Merritt's no-synth trilogy, I, an album arranged in alphabetical order, Distortion, which was an ode to shoegaze, and Realism, a tightly controlled folk-rock homage) over the years, and, unfortunately, lead to Love at the Bottom of the Sea, an album that couldn't feel more rote and tossed off if The Magnetic Fields just walked into the studio and made it up as they went along for half an hour.
The alleged concept that drives Love at the Bottom of the Sea is brevity: Merritt has complained often about modern pop songs and their tendency to overstay their welcome, and so he has delivered an album full of songs all under three minutes. This is highly fortunate, as none of these songs could really sustain a longer run time, and in fact a good many of them could stand to be about three minutes shorter. Where The Magnetic Fields are usually stunning in their experimentation, bold in their execution, and clever in their lyrical witticisms, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is static, thin, and as poorly written as anything Merritt has ever released. It's also morbidly over-synthesized, as if Merritt, freed from a decade of avoiding synthesizers, decided to throw every impulse he had to curb over his last three albums into one completely synthetic half an hour that is likely to make you long for a little of his usual restraint.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the album, though, is its lyrical content, which is a far cry from the usual subtle wit and tongue-in-cheek barbs that populate the best Merritt tunes. Most of the songs have at least one cringe inducing rhyme, and where Merritt has some tendencies toward cutesiness it is usually wrapped in so much irony it becomes palatable; here, the less that is said about songs like "I'd Go Anywhere with Hugh" (get it? Of course you do) and "All She Cares About is Mariachi" (a song anyone with a half-decent rhyming dictionary could have written on a napkin while blacked out at a dive bar), the better.
The whole album is not a wash, though. "Andrew in Drag" is the clear highlight, featuring Merritt at his dead-pan best, crooning about a man who convinces a friend to dress in drag on a lark and then falls hopelessly in love with the "woman" he will never see again. The song is cute, loopy fun like the band at its best, catchy enough that it stuck in my head when the rest of the album was already forgotten (which was immediately after it finished each of the five times I listened through it). Fans of The Magnetic Fields will likely keep "Andrew in Drag" and perhaps the effectively affecting ode to unrequited love "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies" in rotation on playlists (or, if you're feeling particularly retro, a mix cd) in the months to come; the rest of the album is sure to be quickly sifted to the bottom of a cd pile or waste bin, never to be heard again, and likely never to be missed.
I love The Magnetic Fields openly and unabashedly. I have found all of their experiments over the past decade and a half imaginative, well executed, and often enthralling. Yet there is only so far I can follow Merritt down his experimental rabbit hole; I'll certainly come back for his next bag of tricks, but I can only sink so low, and the Bottom of the Sea is below my depth. If it's Love, you're looking for, return to 69 Love Songs, which manages to sustain for nearly three hours the heights that this album can't reach for even one of its thirty four minutes. Maybe this whole thing was a gag, and Merritt's real aim was to turn in an album of trite, disposable music as a joke on how inessential much of pop music is today. If that was his aim, he succeeded amiably. Love at the Bottom of the Sea is inessential at best.