After a three album break from their trademark synth-pop sound, The Magnetic Fields return to what longtime listeners will recognize as their stylistic roots with 2012‘s Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Their mid-1990s albums Holiday (1994) and Get Lost (1995) feature a similarly energetic thread, but Love offers an updated, digitally-rounded sound that hints at dreamy dance-pop while adding a mature edge both fresh and distinct.
Interestingly, this is the Magnetic Fields’ first album under Merge Records since 1999’s seminal indie-pop calling card 69 Love Songs– a bedrock Old Testament chapter in any good hipster’s musical Bible. And sonically it makes a good bit of sense, as Love at the Bottom of the Sea marks a decisive shift back to the aesthetic that the band cultivated in the 90s, with short songs rife with irony, sarcasm and wit, and orchestrations that remain buoyant and engaging.
More declarative than the previously mentioned and largely narrative albums, The Magnetic Fields aren’t so much telling stories anymore as they are giving opinions, venting frustrations, and vocalizing secret longings. They spend the first half of the album playing directly to their strengths, with quirky synth and reverb backed up by lyrics that may require a rewind or two. Frontman Stephin Merritt admittedly indulges himself here and compensates for a three album vacation from the synthesizer, enhancing the band’s surprisingly sunnier melodic arc this time around.
Opening track “God Wants Us To Wait” brings listeners right back to where 69 Love Songs left off, with ear-perking machinations that spark a sense of anticipation for the rest of the album. With its serious techno core and a nearly danceable melody, the anticipation of consummation felt by the subject at hand runs parallel to the listeners’ desire to see where these musicians steer the record. However, it’s the second song (and lead single) “Andrew in Drag” that will no doubt draw a peculiar and familiar amusement from old and new fans alike. This is arguably the best song on Love, and it stands among the brightest and wittiest of their oeuvre of lyrical snark. Merritt tickles listeners with a rhetorical gay man’s dilemma of attraction towards his otherwise straight friend during his walk on the wild side. “A pity she does not exist / A shame he’s not a fag / The only girl I ever loved was / Andrew in drag / There is no hope of love for me / From here on I’m a stag / The only girl I’ll ever love is / Andrew in drag.” It’s one in the handful of audible guilty pleasures, and eye-brow raisers this band excels in producing.
Context is everything and convention(ality) is nothing for The Magnetic Fields. They’re not making music to fit into a scene or go with any modern trend or flow. Rather, it seems they construct each album to push at the boundaries of musical and lyrical artistry in a form both raw and progressive. Love at the Bottom of the Sea features all of the similar relationship themes to modern “top-40” pop: love, hate, sex, desire– even awkwardness. Even so, their lyrics can extend beyond the obvious and swim in subtlety, injecting nuance of both style and substance that energizes their artistic stock and often has listeners scrambling for the liner notes.
This is humorously exhibited in what Stephin Merritt has deemed an auto-biographical revenge fantasy inspired in “Your Girlfriend’s Face:” “So I’ve taken a contract out on y’all / For making me feel infinitely small in the evenings I devise your death / Being buried alive on crystal meth. Baby, I’d give you death / Bye, bye, by crystal meth.” With songs like this they add to their pithy post-relationship style of angst-filled pieces that will instill a measure of guilty laughter and maybe even sober reflection.
Band-mate Claudia Gonson also takes a much more vocally active role on this album than anything since 69 Love Songs. She appears on more than half the tracks, either as lead vocal or backing harmony. Her vocal androgyny adds a distinctive counterbalance to the sometimes maudlin tones struck by Merritt’s signature bass. Where Merritt often sticks to terse lyrics with low-strung melodies, as he does on songs like "Born For Love" and "I Don’t Like Your Tone," Gonson is given to the more witty and esoteric side, with songs like "I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh.”
Love at the Bottom of the Sea can seem to defy the conventional wisdom of aural aesthetics and perhaps even the supposedly immediate mental connection to enjoyment of song and melody, as can be felt on “I’m going off to join faeries.” Fans of their former synth-laden work may feel a bit jarred by mid-album as a notable dip in seriousness is felt. As most Magnetic Fields albums do, Love carries with it one or two head-scratchers that question their place or necessity on the album, with such audibly a-symmetrical digitized synth that it may compel hitting “next” out of lack of appeal or connection to the rest of the songs. Focus should be key and at times Love seems to lose it and use several songs as mere vehicles to extend a more organic and even random display of the synth-technics for which the band is so well known.
All that being said, The Magnetic Fields consistently produce music that goes against the flow of the indie/rock mainstream; moreover, they create a distinctive collision of lyrics and vocals with such irony and wit that there is rarely a fence-rider in terms of appreciating their style. They set a standard of music-making that puts them apart from the conventional, the cliche, the staid and most especially the boring. Love at the Bottom of the Sea is no different; full of innuendo and rife with potent/loaded sexual references that will at once ring true in a humorous and poignant sense. They present the dilemmas and tribulations inside the dichotomies of twitterpated anticipation, most especially through realized and sometimes stifled passion.
If Christopher Hitchens had written snarky love songs instead of vivid and piercing prose-lit journalism, one could imagine Stephin Merritt as his musical döppelganger. Rapier wit crossed with a depth of talent the music world rarely finds and likely under appreciates. Always facing the specter of a comparison to 69 Love Songs, Merritt and company have produced an album that maintains their classic factors of fun, wit and innovation while coupling it all with a palpable sense of maturity that will make longtime listeners nostalgic for their older work while enjoying the progression that this album represents.