The Magnetic Fields

Love at the Bottom of the Sea

(Merge; 2012)

By Maura McAndrew | 19 March 2012

When its first single “Andrew in Drag” hit, many (myself included) were hopeful that the Magnetic Fields’ new record, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, would deliver on its promise that the band was returning to classic, 69 Love Songs (1999)-era form after a decade’s worth of experimentation. All the signs were there—synths, witty lyrics, earworm chorus. In a way, Stephin Merritt and co. were smart to dangle “Andrew in Drag” in front of us first—a catchy, charming song to create buzz around an otherwise clunky and at times grating record. But the single’s charms only seem to bring the album’s failing into sharp relief: with all of its heavy obviousness, Love at the Bottom of the Sea seems to magnify the band’s best qualities until they become cartoonish. It’s almost as if Merritt, ever the curmudgeon, is challenging us. You want cute lyrics? You want synths? Well, you got it.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea has both of these things in spades, and “Andrew in Drag” is pretty much the only track practicing moderation. The music is familiarly chintzy, the lyrics are clever, and Merritt’s delivery is compelling as ever on lines like “A pity she does not exist / A shame he’s not a fag / The only girl I ever loved / Was Andrew in drag.” It’s a great turn of phrase, and is rooted, like Merritt’s best work, in emotional truth. Unfortunately, bafflingly, it’s the only song on the record that possesses those qualities and is produced in way that doesn’t make you want to thrash your headphones. It seems that whenever Merritt comes out with a nice melody (which he still proves largely capable of here), this record’s production hauls back and starts throwing punches in the form of an unnecessary bloop, hiss, or squinch here, shards of vocal distortion there. Tracks like opener “God Wants Us to Wait” and “Infatuation (with Your Gyration)” even struggle behind a wall of ’80s-new-wave-robotics, channeling a Depeche Mode parody act.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea feels like a slog, a sharp contrast to the dreamy wispiness of some of Merritt’s finest material, like The 6ths’ Wasps’ Nests (1995). Not to place the blame all on Merritt’s shoulders—longtime collaborator Claudia Gonson and vocalist Shirley Simms are both featured prominently here. Simms, who appears on “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” “Goin’ Back to the Country,” and others, is a head-scratcher, notably unsuited to the material. Lyrics that would be more palatable processed through Merritt’s signature weary sarcasm become cloying with Simms’ chipper over-enunciation, though the corniness of a track like “Goin’ Back to the Country” would be hard for any vocalist to overcome: “And I’m gonna find me a country boy / And have a couple country kids, Leanne and Leroy.”

The main problem is not the vocals, but that the joke-y conceits around which many of these songs revolve are too obvious (see “The Machine in Your Hand” for a tired smartphone metaphor), and lack the heart of Merritt’s best work. Even Merritt’s keen sense of misanthropy is wasted here, on lifeless tracks like “The Horrible Party” And “I Don’t Like Your Town.” “Born for Love” and “Quick!” have something of that old Magnetic Fields spark, if only they weren’t drowning in production, the former with puddle sounds and echoing vocals amplified from what sounds like the bottom of a well. The record rolls along quickly at least, but one can only cringe so many times before surrendering. “The Machine in Your Hand” and “Goin’ Back to the Country” hurt the most; by the time “Your Husband’s Pied-a-Terre” comes along, stuffed to the gills with misguided whimsy, you’ll be too tapped out to care.

When it comes to the ’00s incarnation of the Magnetic Fields, it seems it’s the same refrain over and over again: Merritt’s a great songwriter, but [insert album here] is not as good as 69 Love Songs, The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994), or Wasps’ Nests. So it is with some relief and some sadness that I tell you this time is different; I can’t afford Love at the Bottom of the Sea that mild endorsement. Stephin Merritt, once capable of such subtlety, such beauty in his cynicism, has produced a record that’s surprisingly shallow. And the question becomes not whether he can do again what he once did, but why we talked ourselves into believing he would.