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The Magnetic Fields - Love at the Bottom of the Sea

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Artist: The Magnetic Fields

Album: Love at the Bottom of the Sea

Label: Merge

Review date: Mar. 5, 2012

Love at the Bottom of the Sea marks The Magnetic Fields return to Merge, their home for much of the 1990s and, of course, for the 69 Love Songs trilogy. The move leads us to expect a nod to the past, which does indeed appear here in form of synth-heavy production. On the surface, Love sounds closer to The Charm of the Highway Strip or Holiday than to any of the group’s past few synth-free outings. But as recent efforts like the distortion-laced Distortion and the largely acoustic Realism have demonstrated, Stephen Merritt’s chosen palette ultimately affects his songwriting very little. Rather, the sonic themes he chooses for his albums are simply laid on top of more-or-less interchangeable songs to give the impression of an overarching theme or coherent aesthetic. The same holds true for Love at the Bottom of the Sea: while synths are occasionally used to great effect, most of the time they merely substitute for the non-electronic instrumentation of the past few albums. The songwriting is scarcely distinguishable from Merritt’s work on Realism, so those who have heard that album should have a sense of what to expect here (i.e., not very much).

Despite the predominating staleness, there are a few hints of rejuvenation here. A charming irreverent energy entirely lacking from Realism surfaces during the first half of the album, as do moments of unexpected sweetness (“Andrew in Drag”) and genuine humor (the violent vendetta recounted on “Your Girlfriend’s Face”). Unfortunately, Merritt can’t keep it up for the album’s 34-minute running time, and even at such a short length, Love feels overlong.

The album is hampered by two slight problems, namely the music and the lyrics. The latter are hit-and-miss (as on the past few efforts), but what’s seriously lacking is any sense of pathos and any sense of purpose. For the most part, Merritt generates songs out of tropes or characters: the escaping the city romanticism of “Goin’ Back to the Country,” the naïf-at-a-wild party of “The Horrible Party,” or the spurned wife of a promiscuous husband on “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre.” This isn’t necessary a bad thing in itself except that he doesn’t do anything with the motifs he selects: they are not parodied, not rendered affectionate homage, nor infused with genuine emotion. Cutesiness (but not humor) abound, as though it were enough to simply signal a stock theme for the joke (or the feeling) to come off.

The album’s music usually feels equally tossed-off and phoned-in, demonstrating little invention or inspiration. One could object that such slightness and lightness are precisely what Merritt is aiming at here, but this defense fails for two reasons. First, Merritt can and has managed an effective slightness in the past (most memorably on 69 Love Songs), making the shortest fragment meaningful and memorable. Second, it has become increasingly clear on his past two albums that his approach to songwriting has mutated considerably. Whereas his strongest past efforts felt a bit like a pop-culture jukebox filtered through a very distinctive musical and lyrical voice, he now seems to speak from a considerably more isolated and hermetic place. Granted, the nods to recognizably pop styles still appear at times, as they do on Love’s strongest tracks, such as the somber ’80s synth-pop of “God Wants Us to Wait” or the Herman’s Hermits- style bubblegum on “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh.” For the most part, though, the dominant style is what one might call the “Merritt operetta”: a sing-songy and rather invariable melodicism which bears little resemblance to any pop-music from the past 50 years and instead hearkens back toward Gilbert and Sullivan or pre-1940 Tin Pan Alley pop (see the predictable waltzes of “The Horrible Party” or “The Only Boy in Town” for the strongest examples here). The references and unexpected familiarity that characterizes Merritt’s genre tributes are missing, replaced by what feels more like bad novelty or children’s music than a tribute to pre-rock era pop music that he seems to have in mind.

In place of the whimsical, sugary rush it aims at, Love at the Bottom of the Sea falls victim to Merritt’s reliance on what is, even for him, an overly-schematic songwriting style, one that sacrifices the cultural resonance of its stronger moments to a cloying preciousness lacking in both inventiveness and humor. Sly winks at a complicit listener are replaced by a troubling disregard for the audience, and The Magnetic Fields sink to the bottom of the sea of self-satisfaction.

By Michael Cramer

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