The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea

written by: March 6, 2012
Release Date: March 6th, 2012


First things first: yes, the synths are back.

On The Magnetic Fields’ new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, there’s no hunting for them, either. Opener “Your Girlfriend’s Face” kicks off with a bitch-slap of synthesizers signaling the band means business. But like so many in an economy where flat is the new up, this business still needs recovery.

After three albums with a common theme of zero synthesizers, Magnetic Fields ringleader Stephen Merritt brings that beat back with swirling, dense electro-pop that comes off simultaneously delicate and belabored. Still, simply a return to the sound (synth pop) and record label (Merge) that spawned their unqualified masterpiece (1999’s 69 Love Songs) doesn’t guarantee a win.

Their last album, Realism, suffered from an anything-goes approach backed by some of Merritt’s weakest songwriting to date (let’s not even talk about the bizarre Blazing Saddles influence). Love at the Bottom evokes its predecessor in how painfully front-loaded it is. The set’s two strongest songs, “Your Girlfriend’s Face” and “Andrew in Drag” (as in, “the only boy I’d anything is Andrew in drag”), show Merritt hasn’t lost his gift for brain-burrowing melodies that refuse to be forgotten. Unfortunately, most of what follows feels undercooked at best and outright irritating at worst.

Merritt’s writing has always been gleefully inconsistent—he’s essentially a mopey Robert Pollard, switching out domestic beer for imported tea—but now the “failed experiment” excuse doesn’t cut it. Instead, these songs mostly sound like tired retreads of the band’s 1990s work, shrewdly crafted to invoke 69 Love Songs but with little of the spark that made albums like Get Lost and The Charm of the Highway Strip so wonderful.

Those first two songs set expectations high. Instantly earning its place on a future best-of, “Andrew in Drag” is a hoot. Over bouncy guitar and chiming keyboards, Merritt details falling for a friend when seeing him as a queen. “I’d sod away my trust fund/I would even sell the Jag/If I could spend my misspent youth with Andrew in drag,” he sings. It’s funny and effective stuff, if only because gay, rich boys make for meaty literary characters. To underscore the narrator’s longing, the song cruelly ends without a final hook, the equivalent of a new lover blindfolding you, tying you to the bed and leaving through the fire escape with your wallet.

While The Magnetic Fields is Merritt’s show, part of the band’s charm has always been his willingness to share the spotlight. He and singer Claudia Gonson alternate lead vocals for most of the album, with Gonson as the no-bullshit gal pal and Merritt as the droopy-eyed fool. Gonson does everything she can to save these songs, whose childlike melodies are given a chilly undertone by her detached delivery—check how she infuses “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” with a faint theatrical bounce and “The Horrible Party” with aloof disdain.

Lyrically, Merritt is the same boy we’ve always known, singing about hetero-flexible characters aching for affection. The theme of a narrator abandoning his current trajectory is rife in songs such as, “I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies.” Fans know the man is nothing if not colorful, so he can run with such standard motifs, but some of these lyrics are atrocious: brain turds like, “To appetize the sausage in your pants,” and, “More pricks than a cactus may always distract us,” don’t invite further inspection. And then there’s the final nosedive, “All She Cares About Is Mariachi,” where the night ends in a sicko dive bar, having gone very wrong for all interested parties.

Although this mess of a record somehow beats the abysmal Realism, that’s not saying much, and Love at the Bottom of the Sea ultimately drowns in its own mediocrity.

The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea tracklist:

  1. “Your Girlfriend’s Face”
  2. “Andrew in Drag”
  3. “God Wants Us to Wait”
  4. “Born for Love”
  5. “I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh”
  6. “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)”
  7. “The Only Boy in Town”
  8. “The Machine in Your Head”
  9. “Goin’ Back to the Country”
  10. “I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies”
  11. “The Horrible Party”
  12. “My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre”
  13. “I Don’t Like Your Tone”
  14. “Quick!”
  15. “All She Cares About Is Mariachi”