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The Magnetic Fields
Love At The Bottom Of The Sea Darren Lee , March 5th, 2012 09:59

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It's a favourite parlour game of musos the world over: listing the double albums which, but for some judicious editing, could have made for classic single albums. But what about when the opposite is true? The Magnetic Fields' audacious triple-album 69 Love Songs packed more ideas, genre-shifts and killer hooks into its 172 and a half glorious minutes than most artists manage to chalk up in an entire career. The record's enduring appeal is a testament to its remarkable eclecticism and strength in depth, but has ultimately proved something of a mixed blessing for its erudite mastermind Stephin Merritt. Thirteen years and countless side-projects on, he's still unable to shake off the faint whiff of anti-climax surrounding every subsequent release.

Recent Magnetic Fields albums have been hampered by a pre-occupation with gimmicky concepts: 2008's affectionate Jesus and Mary Chain homage Distortion buried frequently sublime melodies beneath layers of superfluous feedback. The orchestral folk straightjacket imposed on 2010's Realism made it a relatively dour and muted affair. If there's a unifying thematic link to tenth album Love At The Bottom of the Sea it is brevity: each of these fifteen tracks clock in at under three minutes. In recent interviews, Merritt has bemoaned the tendency of contemporary pop songs to outstay their welcome: could less really mean more in this instance?

Well, yes and no. For while Love At The Bottom of the Sea represents a welcome attempt to revive their trademark wry, literate electro-pop sound after a self-imposed synth ban on the previous three records, it's a frustratingly uneven album which fluctuates between the inspired and the throwaway.

When Merritt brings his A-game to the table, as on the breezily infectious lead single 'Andrew in Drag', we're reminded of what made us fall in love with him in the first place: his deadpan baritone delivering a coyly suggestive lyric about an infatuation with a cross-dresser. 'I've Run Away To Join The Fairies' is another lugubrious highlight, a bleakly affecting lament to unrequited love. The quintessentially droll humour which characterizes much of his finest work is back in vogue too: the subversive electro-sleaze of 'God Wants Us To Wait' takes aim at the religious right and its obsession with chastity ("although it may not be a crime in our state, I love you baby but God wants us to wait"). Whilst the neurotic disco of 'The Machine In Your Hand' offers a withering commentary on smart phone fetishism ("You're not really a person, more a gadget with meat stuck to it").

Alas, not all of the fifteen tracks attain such satirical heights, and the music frequently sounds like a rehash of past glories: opener 'Your Girlfriend's Face' reboots the Future Bible Heroes formula of bubblegum pop vocals over tinny synths for a twisted revenge fantasy which fails to linger long in the memory; 'I'd Go Anywhere With Hugh' channels the ethereal girl-group aesthetic of debut album Distant Plastic Trees, to melodic but ultimately lightweight effect. 'Goin' Back To The Country''s rollicking bluegrass pastiche feels a little one-dimensional and prosaic compared to the genuine emotional resonance of, say, a track such as 'Sweet-Lovin' Man' from 69 Love Songs. By the time we arrive at the stately, Latin-flavoured closing ballad 'All She Cares About Is Mariachi', our attention has already started to drift.

Perhaps after having penned such a definitive and fully-realised collection as 69 Love Songs, Merritt has earned the right to coast a little: certainly Love At The Bottom of the Sea does nothing to diminish his reputation as a songwriter of remarkable scope and invention. But for such a self-avowed perfectionist, and judged against the admittedly high standards of his magnum opus, it comes up a little short.

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Michael E.
Mar 6, 2012 6:02pm

This record is, sorry to say, boring, totally boring. Some good verses and puns do not make these songs any better. I like his last three albums, Even Distortion was great fun. He hss to make side-steps and throw old formulas away. The synth sounds are dated. Too much routine.

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Mar 7, 2012 7:27pm

I think his albums are always patchy. he is an ideas person and sometimes they are just too out there to be accessible. 'Andrew in Drag' and 'Quick!' are standout tracks for me. one day there will be an amazing 'greatest hits of stephin merritt' compilation to be had.

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