Release Date: Mar 6, 2012
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Lo-Fi, Indie Electronic, Indie Pop
Revisiting his favorite subject with his main band, Stephin Merritt delivers 15 synth-pop exercises, all 2:39 or under, savoring love in all its twisted flavors. A straight dude falls for another man in sugary harmony ("Andrew in Drag"), a religious babe cock-blocks her own boyfriend over electro-sputters ("God Wants Us to Wait"), and jealousy blooms every where. The humor wouldn't be as sharp if the arrangements didn't set up the jokes.
The Magnetic FieldsLove At the Bottom of the Sea[Merge; 2012]By Harrison Suits Baer; March 5, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetQuestion: what was that one movie where the teenage girl meets a dashingly handsome man of a different, otherworldly species, falls head over heels in love, and then permanently changes her species so that she can be with him? No, not Twilight. Oh, yeah, The Little Mermaid. I would really like that movie, if not for the absolutely vapid song “Under The Sea,” where the lazy and slightly racist Jamaican stereotype Sebastian encourages a lifestyle unconcerned with change, and furthermore utterly misrepresents the true facts of the lives of aquatic creatures.
The Magnetic Fields may be destined to forever live under the shadow of their iconic album 69 Love Songs; their last few albums consciously tried to do something different in concept and sound, and listeners’ opinions varied as to how successful those records were. With Love at the Bottom of the Sea, Stephin Merritt seems to have stopped thinking so much and focused on what he does best—writing infectiously catchy pop songs—while returning to the synth-laden sound that the band is well known for. It’s not so far from under The Shadow, but that doesn’t hinder this album a bit.
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.
For the band’s first batch of new material on Merge since 1999’s 3-LP classic 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt & Co. crafted a witty, synth-dappled collection of songs that sound like they could’ve been created during the band’s mid-’90s halcyon days. Then again, it’s not really fair to act like Magnetic Fields fell off. While 2004’s i sounds a bit flat when compared to several of the group’s 10 (!) albums, and 2008’s excellent, Jesus (and Mary Chain)-worshipping Distortion may have confused a few fans unfamiliar with Psychocandy, this is a group that has consistently delivered clever, wildly-well-put-together odes to love and loss for more than 20 years now.
If you’re part of one the indie world’s cult bands, (slightly) famed for making albums with unnecessary rules attached to them, how would you start your new album, one that’s all about love (again)? Well, the only option that’s available to you is to write a song about getting an assassin to kill someone, but not just any old hit-man, one that “will do his best to do his worst, after he’s messed up your girlfriend first”. Make sure there’s loads of weird lyrics, stuff about blowing off faces, add some weird splash like, novelty sounds and get someone to sing like those Parry Gripp songs, you know that Chimpanzee Riding on a Segway YouTube video? Like that. So that’s the first track sorted.
The conventional wisdom regarding the Magnetic Fields’ latest offering Love at the Bottom of the Sea is that Stephin Merritt and company have finally come up with the proper follow-up to 69 Love Songs, both in theme and its throwback synth-heavy indie-pop aesthetic. In this case, the general consensus happens to be right: After what seemed like countless projects that felt too hung up on a particular thematic conceit or formal formula—although what else is 69 Love Songs but the ultimate concept-driven gimmick?—Merritt’s merry band has returned to what it does best, capturing snapshots of love from unexpected perspectives in unforeseen ways. While you could interpret Merritt as running away from what made him as close to a household name as any indie artist could be as he jumped from one high-concept project to another, ranging from a solo effort translating Beijing opera to the Jesus and Mary Chain-styled one-off Distortion, he’s come full circle back to where he belongs as the writer of love songs that are pretty, touching, smart, and absurd—often at the same time.
It’s a measure of tribute to The Magnetic Fields that despite them being a ubiquitous fixture on the music scene since emerging in 1991, there has never really been anyone who has come close to them in terms of wit, beauty and broad-shouldered absurdity. Yet their musical and thematic journey since 1999’s remarkable 69 Love Songs has largely been one of self-discovery and re-invention, as the band appeared to row away from their former roots in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to distance themselves from their remarkable creation and the expectation it mustered. And thus came the so-called ‘No Synth Trilogy’, where the band explored first acoustic and compositional arrangements (I), dense Jesus and Mary Chain swirls of feedback (Distortion) and dark-edged fairy-tale folk (Realism).
Those who’ve poured hours, stoned or unstoned, into watching Blue Planet, “NOVA,” or anything of that ilk are likely well-acquainted with the opinion that the bottom of the sea is Earth’s last unexplored frontier. The creatures that inhabit these regions live by their own rules and develop compensations and coping mechanisms in order to exist in a place without light, little oxygen, and extreme atmospheric pressure. It’s an unlikely place to survive – much less thrive – but if anyone’s qualified to name an album Love at the Bottom of the Sea and use it as a conceit to discuss life and love that succeed in bizarre, inhospitable places, it’s Stephin Merritt.
Over the past decade, the Magnetic Fields have put out a trio of rigorously formalist albums, each of which, with the clinical exactitude of a lab report, handed the listener a tidy intellectual conclusion about pop music. Even the stuff we perceive to be "confessional" songwriting is just a parade of characters and personas (citation: i, an album-length meditation on the first person pronoun), every simple melody sounds a little bit better when buried under an avalanche of Jesus and Mary Chain-grade scuzz (see: the aptly titled Distortion), and music made with "real" instruments like acoustic guitars and ukuleles can easily sound just as artificial as music made on computers and synthesizers (the folksy yet artifice-guilded Realism). With a frontman iconically haughty enough to be a feasible answer to a New York Times crossword puzzle clue (L.
Every overriding theme on a Magnetic Fields record (this one's all acoustic! This one's titles all start with "i"!) is a ruse. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what premise frontman Stephin Merritt employs; his songs always sound like The Magnetic Fields. That is usually a very good thing..
The Magnetic Fields' synth pop-saturated tenth studio album arrives after a trio of more guitar-oriented offerings (I, Distortion, and Realism). While Love at the Bottom of the Sea does feel like an amalgamation of Stephin Merritt's epic 69 Love Songs and his excellent work under the 6ths moniker, especially on the giddy and typically infectious first single "Andrew in Drag," overproduction and a general (and oddly generic) sense of overarching silliness keeps the 15-track set from achieving the lovely balance of dirty wit and sincere heartache that made albums like Wayward Bus and Charm of the Highway Strip so immediate and life affirming. Opener "God Wants Us to Wait," a bouncy electro-pop parody of purity ring pathos, suffers from a grating, relentless hook and Shirley Simms terse delivery, while cuts like "Infatuation (With Your Gyration)," "You're Girlfriend's Face," and "'I've Run Away to Join the Faeries" feel like second-rate comedy rock songs as opposed to the bar napkin-composed gems we've grown so used to over the years.
After an ill-fated trilogy of albums produced entirely without synthesizers, each seemingly lost in its own specific conceptual wasteland, it’s a huge relief to hear the weird electronic salvo that introduces the Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea, another smart, acidic album that nonetheless still struggles with quality-control issues. The last three Magnetic Fields albums, beyond problems of conceptual confusion, left the impression that Stephin Merritt had blown a gasket after overextending himself on the at-times brilliant but spotty 69 Love Songs. There’s still a feeling of something missing here, and while the material is much stronger than on the band’s most recent releases, there’s also a sense that these are the first 15 songs Merritt wrote for the project and not the best of a larger selection.
Stephin Merritt can hardly feel aggrieved that critics are constantly rating Magnetic Fields albums against his 1999 magnum opus 69 Love Songs. As he told the Guardian recently, that was the whole point – to make an album so definitive that nothing else could compare, and indeed it still casts a shadow over every new Magnetic Fields release. There are plenty of fine songs here, of course, but the exact same things that made 69 Love Songs such a tour de force – smart namechecks, hyperactive genre-surfing, a DIY feel to the production (he's back on the synths) – are the very same things that can start to grate here.
After a three-album sabbatical from synthesizers, indie pop group the Magnetic Fields bring back the instrumentation integral to their most beloved material on this concept-free collection. These pithy pop songs playfully explore the many side effects of love - spitefulness, infatuation, murder and mariachi among them. The disc starts strong with three gleefully skewed POVs on love: upbeat abstinence anthem God Wants Us To Wait, homophobe-in-love ditty Andrew In Drag and chipper revenge fantasy Your Girlfriend's Face.
Thirteen years ago, The Magnetic Fields released their 69 Love Songs, a colossal three-disc collection exploring the vast complexities of love that was largely hailed as a synth-pop masterpiece. For any other band, such an ambitious undertaking can — and probably should — be dismissed as a gimmick, but due to the mercurial talents of band leader Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields unquestionably pulled it off, and since then, fans have pined for another record as brilliant as 69 Long Songs. But is that too much to ask? Is there life after the landmark album, or are bands that find such universal critical success doomed to put out progressively less impressive records for the rest of their career, like waves flattening out as they get further and further from where the stone first fell? The Magnetic Fields’ last three albums — a no-synth trilogy comprised of i (2004), Distortion (2008), and Realism (2010) on Nonesuch—might suggest that The Magnetic Fields were sliding down that slippery slope, sacrificing consistency for conceptual unity.
I hate to say it, but Love at the Bottom of the Sea is such a drag: a damp and dreary album, drowning in bad faith and bad jokes. In fact, while the album is being touted as a return to form, reminiscent of 1999’s excellent 69 Love Songs, the band only seems to have given into its worst tendencies — comedy, cutesiness, and camp — all of which, used in excess here, destroy any sense of music itself. Are people really still making fun of faith-based abstinence? Who’s still laughing at crystal meth jokes? Is it truly clever to rhyme “hibachi” with “mariachi” or even “Saatchi and Saatchi”? Is a dick joke any funnier when it’s called a “sausage”? Sure, the subject matter is adult, but there’s nothing more to these songs than the point-and-laugh humor of an eight-year-old.
After three virtually synth-free albums, the Magnetic Fields have returned to their glory days. Stephin Merritt’s darkly comical songwriting is as great as ever, with the references to drugs and sexuality you’d expect from the man who wrote ‘Take Ecstasy With Me’.Most of this album’s highlights come at the hands of Claudia Gonson’s tracks, from the glorious opener Your Girlfriend’s Face to the cacophony of the appropriately titled The Horrible Party. That is not to diminish Merritt’s baritone, but it seems that with age he has become more adept at penning songs for other people’s voices than his own.
Ten albums on and Stephin Merritt and company show no signs of drying up. Camilla Pia 2012 So prolific is The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt (also the driving force behind Future Bible Heroes, The Gothic Archies, The 6ths and, latterly, composer of film and musical scores) that it’s easy to take his talent for granted. But lest we forget, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a timely reminder that he’s pretty much the master when it comes to penning arch pop.
The abiding narrative, that this is the Mags' big return to electronic music, is overplayed. Yes, Stephin Merritt & Co. have found pretty new toys to play and play with – new synthesizer tech that does things beyond their last electo-cuting, the landmark 69 Love Songs (Merge), before they "unplugged" for the i, Distortion, and Realism trilogy (Nonesuch) – but the lasting impression is in the lyricism and melody.
This is Magnetic Fields’ first album with Merge since their 3-album masterpiece, 69 Love Songs. The comparison doesn’t do them any favors: Love Songs succeeded not because there weren’t any misses – there were – but that there was so much there the hits ended up forgiving the misses. Love at the Bottom sounds like a set of outtakes from 69 Love Songs: there’s the similar lovelorn theme, the wild mix of vocal styles, the cheekiness, the sheer eclecticism of it all.
In Strange Powers, the Magnetic Fields documentary directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, drummer Claudia Gonson reads from something called The Formulist Manifesto, in which head Field Stephin Merritt outlines some of his more obtuse thoughts on the nature of his chosen field. All art aspires to top 40 bubblegum pop. Cliché is dead; long live cliché.
It's a favourite parlour game of musos the world over: listing the double albums which, but for some judicious editing, could have made for classic single albums. But what about when the opposite is true? The Magnetic Fields' audacious triple-album 69 Love Songs packed more ideas, genre-shifts and killer hooks into its 172 and a half glorious minutes than most artists manage to chalk up in an entire career. The record's enduring appeal is a testament to its remarkable eclecticism and strength in depth, but has ultimately proved something of a mixed blessing for its erudite mastermind Stephin Merritt.