Review: The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea
Published on March 31st, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
So, after the trilogy of overarching concepts that was i, Distortion and Realism, The Magnetic Fields bring out the synths for the first time since 1999 classic 69 Love Songs on their eleventh studio album Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Unconstrained by set channels of exploration, unfettered by the lifting of self-imposed instrumental limitations; this is a vast, sprawling flight of fancy, right? Well, if you’ll forgive the tired journalistic device of answering one’s own questions: no.
But that’s okay, kind of. I mean, the union of melodic sweet tooth, harsh electronics and knowingly witty lyrics makes for some fine moments, but for all that these tracks generally scrub up well in isolation, when piled one on top of the other it just descends into a bit of a gagfest. It’s certainly a diverting listen and therefore hard to be excessively negative towards, but the whiff of adequacy can’t help but disappoint when it emanates from something capable of greatness.
“Andrew in Drag”
For much of the album, lead vocal duties alternate between Claudia Gonson and Magnetic Fields head honcho Stephin Merritt. Gonson’s helium style is ideally suited to rendering playful the potentially menacing “Your Girlfriend’s Face” (“So I’ve taken a contract out on you / I have hired a hit man to do what they do / He will do his best to do his worst / After he’s messed up your girlfriend first”), while Merritt’s arch croon ascends into breezy chorus territory quite wonderfully on the single “Andrew in Drag” (sample lyric: “When he came onto the stage, my tail began to wag / Wagged like a little wiener dog for Andrew in drag”), a song that could almost have featured on The Divine Comedy‘s 2006 album Victory for the Comic Muse.
The theme of forbidden love is further established on the fizzing, hissing “God Wants Us to Wait” (“Despite my beauty and the scent of jasmine / Could you be happy in the knowledge of sin? / Although it may not be a crime in our state / I love you, baby, but God wants us to wait”), while Merritt-sung pair “Born for Love” and “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” provide further evidence of his still razor-sharp pop instincts, the latter serving up an authentic-sounding slab of ’80s electro-pop; it’s a little bit robotic, a little bit neurotic, a little bit suave, a little bit paranoid, and moreover it’s insanely catchy.
“I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” is a divisive microcosm of this album’s strengths and weaknesses; while there is enough going on in the mix to distract you from the lyrics, thereby just staving off relegation to the status of simple comedy song, the whole exercise never gives much indication that it owes its existence to much other than its titular pun. Sure, the melody’s sweet – in fact, it’s not a bad song at all in that respect – but it just feels like someone tugging at your shoulder, itching to repeat a joke they’d just cracked and presumed you’d missed, when in fact you’d heard it the first time and just not found it all that funny. Which is a bit of a long-winded way of saying ‘meh’.
“The Machine in Your Hand”
Would Merritt give a toss? I dare say such critique would fuel his inclination to write more like it. In a way, it feels like Love at the Bottom of the Sea does have a unifying subtext after all; that is, one of “we could do whatever we want, and what we want to do is flummox you by not doing all that much”. In which case, fair play.
Reconcile with this possibility and there’s still much to enjoy. “The Machine in Your Hand” may be another single-entendre, but it’s also another winning tune that sounds original by dint of its unusual production; “The Horrible Party” could be Noel Coward if he existed now and fraternised with The Shins, The New Pornographers and The Fiery Furnaces (sample lyric: “Some plastic surgeon’s done terrible things to poor Jane / Making her terrifically popular / Men are insane”); and closer “All She Cares About is Mariachi” sounds like a classic Italian love song with nutty electro accompaniment, bringing to mind a collusion between Hot Chip and the chefs from Lady and the Tramp.
All in all, there’s plenty to get stuck into here (oo er, missus), but it also feels a bit like The Magnetic Fields are flicking Vs at the lofty expectations placed on them by others. Perhaps that’s the whole point.
Rocksucker says: Seven-and-a-Half Quails out of Ten!