Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
REVIEW BY: Melanie Love
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/19/2012
This album gave me a headache. It could be the barrage of midterms this week, but it could also be this collision of abrasive yet twee that characterizes much of The Magnetic Fields’ latest release. Known for their experimentalism – Love At the Bottom of the Sea ends their trilogy of albums shunning synthesizers in favor of “real” instruments – The Magnetic Fields takes it one step too far here, subverting the basic pop song structure into something that almost mocks the idea of popular music without being listenable either.
Opener “Your Girlfriend’s Face” is a pep sing-along, though the assault of synthesizers slightly distracts from the relative catchiness of this cut. It reminds me of early Islands with its tongue-in-cheek violence, Stephen Merritt channeling an innocence and clarity to his voice as he promises to “mess up your girlfriend first.” It’s a graphic, gritty tale all set to some unlikely backbeats, which trill and flourish in the background. It’s a strong enough opener, and leads in well to the rollicking weirdness of “Andrew In Drag.” Merritt’s vocals morph entirely, deepening and taking on an austere tone as the chorus swoons around him. Merritt is not a traditionally gifted singer, but he does well at this sort of deadpan delivery.
The Magnetic Fields has always been gifted with wordplay, and this album is chock full of puns. “God Wants Us To Wait” has a strangely hymnal tone, crossed with a thudding disco groove. It manages to be shimmering and stark all at the same time, and it’s one of the strongest moments on this weird hodgepodge of an album.
None of the songs here clocks in at over three minutes, and that brevity both rescues some of this material from falling into a lull, but it also prevents listeners from getting too connected. Then again, the slightly atonal instrumentation, the constant tempo shifting, and Merritt’s jaded vocals often purposefully block out the listener. Moreover, with pun after pun – “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh,” “Infatuation (With Your Gyration,” and “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre,” it’s hard to take this album seriously when it seems like the band barely is.
Even at two minutes long, some of these songs are just too long. There’s a theatricality in cuts like “The Horrible Party” and “Goin’ Back To The Country,” but The Magnetic Fields doesn’t quite deliver on making these moments soar. Without a theatrical narrative linking these songs in place, there’s little to anchor anything down, and that’s part of what makes Love At The Bottom of the Sea so elusive. You see its potential to be witty, to be catchy, to even be a cool exercise in song craft, but then they miss the mark.
Though Merritt tries to coax life out of these songs, they just never quite hit home, and it makes Love At the Bottom of the Sea a chore to listen to. An album should never feel like it’s overstayed its welcome at barely a half hour, but that’s the only claim to fame this disc has.