The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea

9 Mar

I had been waiting for The Magnetic Fields to return to their sound on 1999’s 3-volume 69 Love Songs and with Love at the Bottom of the Sea thirteen years later they do just that…it’s just not nearly as good.  After 69 Love Songs, The Magnetic Fields released i (which I liked to an extent), Distortion (which I was indifferent to and saw them just after the release of at NYC’s Town Hall venue) and Realism (which I didn’t like).  iDistortion and Realism departed from the synth-heavy pop of The Magnetic Fields’ pre-i works with more production, a focus on guitars and they unfortunately showed devolution in frontman/songwriter Stephin Merritt’s songwriting.

For instance, the dark humor of tracks like “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” on 69 Love Songs devolved into Distortion‘s “California Girls” and further into Love at the Bottom of the Sea‘s “Your Girlfriend’s Face.”  Each track captures a comically brutal response to aversion, but the first feels like a bitchslap from a songwriting genius whereas the latter feels like Weird Al Yankovic’s voice dropped.  There is a detrimental silliness that pervades Love at the Bottom of the Sea.  “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” feels like a discarded Human League B-side of “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” and makes me want to sit down more than dance.  “Goin’ Back to the Country” is not all that bad from a lyrical standpoint, but Shirley Simms’ awkward delivery over what sounds like a theme song to a children’s educational video ruins it.

The Magnetic Fields are capable of being silly and successful.  Take two of my favorites off of 69 Love Songs: “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” and “Epitaph For my Heart.”  The first is entirely absurd but perfectly captures the bliss of Saturdays spent in bed (albeit active); the intro to “Epitaph…” is an a Capella safety disclaimer for the human heart where Merritt echoes: “No user serviceable parts inside.  Refer servicing to qualified service personnel.”  The difference between the silliness on 69 Love Songs and Love at the Bottom… is the fact that the silly tracks on 69 were funnier and bookended by the somber seriousness of The Magnetic Fields’ earlier albums like The Charm of the Highway.  The majority of the tracks on Love at the Bottom… are slightly over-produced, 69 Love Songs-era cutting room floor material.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a single pop sharpshooter on the album.  What would a Magnetic Fields album be without a gender-bending, Freudian field day single?  “Andrew in Drag” is definitely that, opening with “A pity she does not exist; a shame he’s not a fag.  The only girl I ever loved is Andrew in drag.”  Love at the Bottom of the Sea won’t wow Magnetic Fields’ fans, but the synth’s reintroduction is a sure sign that Merritt is sharpening his pop pencil.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Andrew in Drag” and “Quick!”

Rating: ***

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3 Responses to “The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea

  1. clownonfire March 9, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    I haven’t given it a spin yet, but I’m looking forward to it, being the very [very] old Magnetic Fields fan.

  2. the self-hating hipster March 9, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    You’ll be happy to hear that I’m working on The Magnetic Fields’ induction into The Indie Canon article citing earlier works. I’m hoping to have it done within the week.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Indie Canon Inductee: The Magnetic Fields « the self-hating hipster - March 21, 2012

    […] synth pop sound (which was later abandoned and not revisited until their most recent record, Love at the Bottom of the Sea).  Merritt’s tongue-in-cheek humor sharpened the lyrics of songs like “Strange […]

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