Posted by: Jeff | March 19, 2012

Album Review: The Magnetic Fields – “Love at the Bottom of the Ocean”

The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea [Buy Here]

Merge
Release Date: March 6, 2012
Grade: C

The Magnetic Fields – “Andrew in Drag”

The Magnetic Fields are the brainchild of Stephin Merritt, a lovably curmudgeonly songwriter with a penchant for wry humor and incredibly catchy melody.  Most Magnetic Field records are populated by short pop songs inflected with insightful observations about life and love and delightful wordplay.  On ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea’, the Fields’ 10th full-length release, the longest track – “The Only Boy in Town” – clocks in at 2:35, a mere interlude on most contemporary records.  On ‘Love’, however, the fifteen tracks are all brief explorations of cheeky humor connected together loosely in theme but more significantly by their brevity.

Recent Fields history has revolved around theme albums – from 1999’s magnificent ode to love songs (the aptly titled ‘69 Love Songs’ was comprised of exactly 69 songs about love) to the synth-less trio of albums that explored, in sequence, self (‘i’), sonic ‘Distortion’, and song-writing ‘Realism’.  ‘Love on the Bottom of the Sea’ is, by contrast, relatively theme-less, allowing the Fields to explore a wider array of subject matter and stylistic palettes without the rigid self-imposed structure of forcing song-writing to adhere to theme.  Though an auspicious start to a new record by a band accused of late of becoming mired down by theme, the result is a rather disjointed record weighed down by its own cleverness and not rooted in any particular direction.

If retroactively assigning a theme to the loose collection of songs on ‘Love’, one might choose cheeky humor.  Indeed, from the first moments of lead track “God Wants Us To Wait”, wry humor and wit is front and center.  The song features a buzzy synthesizer, the first used by the band on new music since 1999’s ‘69 Love Songs’, and a wonderfully ironic vocal exploration of chastity and temptation.  Sonically and lyrically it’s a track that seems more in the universe of The Scissor Sisters than The Magnetic Fields, but it’s a track that really works.  Likewise, “Andrew in Drag” is hilarious in irony, and features a catchy chorus that is the only true earworm on the record.

From this point forward, the humor verges on shtick, and the songs become increasingly uninteresting.  “Your Girlfriend’s Face” plods along with clumsy synth and overly poppy vocals that miss the mark.  “Born for Love” saunters with a drunken stupor, and “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” is groan-inducing in title alone.  “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” is too clever by half, and features a robotic synth melody that sounds like Hot Chip misplaced their tuner.

Much of the humor on the rest of the album borders unfortunately on camp (such as the disjointed “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre”, a blatant excuse to rhyme something with the word ‘derriere’).  Given Merritt’s reputation for clever song-writing, it’s a disappointment, though admittedly this is an album bogged down as much by lofty expectations as it is by its very real short-comings.  If ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea’ had been conceived by a lesser band, it may not have felt like such a disappointment.  In the very capable hands of Merritt and Company, however, it can’t escape the label.

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