The Magnetic Fields - Love At The Bottom Of The Sea (2012)
Twenty-two years ago, a young songwriter named Stephin Merritt gathered together some of his friends in Boston to form a group called The Magnetic Fields. Thirteen years ago, The Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs, and things haven’t been the same since. 69 Love Songs was a masterpiece — conceptually brilliant, expertly executed, and endlessly playable. It was stylistically and instrumentally diverse, equally hilarious and touching in its lyricism, and generally one of the most thoroughly entertaining albums of all time. So why am I writing about a thirteen year old record in a review of The Magnetic Fields’ new album Love At The Bottom Of The Sea?
I’m doing so because this album is being billed as a return to form. In fact, the band has been promising a return to form of sorts ever since the release of 2004’s i, the first album in The Magnetic Fields’ so-called “no-synth trilogy.” Three albums later, The Magnetic Fields are back, presumably ready to pick up where 69 Love Songs left off.
Listening to Love At The Bottom of The Sea, it almost feels as though Merritt literally picked up where he left off in 1999. Many of these songs actually sound like updated versions of those on 69 Love Songs. Merritt has been writing about love for a long time, but the acuteness and the cleverness with which he approaches the topic as a lyricist on Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is matched by no record of his other than that aforementioned album.On the stellar lead single “Andrew In Drag,” Merritt tells the humorous story of “the only girl [he] ever loved,” bitterly quipping, “A pity she does not exist / A shame he’s not a fag.” Elsewhere, he launches back-handed lyrical compliments on the Claudia Gonson-sung “The Only Boy In Town” and describes a confusing but understandable love triangle on “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” as “a sad gevalt.” If that’s not vintage Merritt, I don’t know what is.
Love At The Bottom Of The Sea also has its fair share of joke songs and pastiche, two elements that 69 Love Songs certainly does not lack, nor does almost any Magnetic Fields release, for that matter. To me, tracks like “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” and the overwhelmingly sarcastic “God Wants Us To Wait” are little more than humorous throwaways, good for a listen or two but not worth much after that. Thankfully, there aren’t too many songs like that on here; Merritt generally manages to balance his knack for humor and irony with solid melodies and inspired song structure.
This might seem like I’m looking too far into the similarities this album has with 69 Love Songs, but of course Merritt intended for listeners to draw the comparison. After all, this is the only other record in the Magnetic Fields ouvre with the word “love” in its title. But what really makes this album interesting in the context of the wider Magnetic Fields discography is how it differs from that record and how it manages to stand on its own.
Most of that difference is musical. Merritt may not have changed much as a songwriter over the past 13 years, but music has; in the press release for this album, he was quoted as saying that ““Most of the synthesizers on the record didn’t exist when we were last using synthesizers.” Suffice it to say that it shows; although the general musical aesthetic of this album is definitely a return to the synth pop style of The Magnetic Fields’ 90s releases, the actual synth sounds and production elements are very different. Overall, the record is much more polished than the band’s earlier synth pop material, with crisp, clear beats and equally clear vocals in the mix. The synth leads and pads also sound much more high-end than those on the early Magnetic Fields albums.
Thankfully, the band doesn’t lose its heart and soul with the updated production. If anything, the Fields sound more invigorated on this album than they have since 69 Love Songs. It’s clear that experimenting with synths again has caused Merritt & Co. to go back to their musical roots and rediscover their creative muse on this record. Most importantly, they sound like they are enjoying themselves, which, for Stephin Merritt, is quite an accomplishment.