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