The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt is always eager to prove there are infinite realms of love waiting to be revealed by pop music; that, if written well enough, love songs will never lose their power to touch us and tickle us and break our hearts in totally new ways.
As the title of Love At The Bottom Of The Sea implies, Merritt has set out this time to explore some of love’s murkier, slimier habitats. In past songs, he’s stabbed lovers and fantasized about pushing them off cliffs, but now he’s a bit more twisted than that. The narrator of “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” for example, hires a hitman to shoot her cheating man’s girlfriend in the face, and then that woman scorned is gonna bury the guy alive while he’s tweaking on crystal meth. Another cuckquean in “My Husband’s Pied-a-Tierre” also wishes deadly revenge on her unfaithful man, only this time she’s singing from a loony bin after discovering her spouse’s “bachelor pad.” As is often the case in Magnetic Fields songs, the results are much more charming on record than on paper: the delivery is always delightfully deadpan, and the melodies are a fine mix of familiar and novel.
Then there’s the synths. The synths are a big deal here. This is partly because synths were such a big deal for The Magnetic Fields early in their career, up through their utterly-essential masterpiece 69 Love Songs. But 69 Love Songs was over 12 years ago, and the 3 very good albums the band released between then and now (i, Distortion, Realism) deliberately offered zero synths. Now Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is all about synths, and playing with lots of cool new synth toys that have become available in the past 12+ years. The “bottom of the sea” isn’t just a metaphor for the depths of love we’re navigating; it also describes all the whooshes and waves and blurps we’re scuba-diving within.
The fun that Merritt & company have jumping back in the synth pool is palpable and contagious. It makes “Your Girlfriend’s Face” a death threat you can wiggle your butt to. It makes religious-mandated abstinence sound as sexy as actual sex in “God Wants Us To Wait.” All that synthesizing is such a diversion it can even distract from how much substance there is. During the first listen or two, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea might seem more superficial than the typical Magnetic Fields album, without any songs as beautiful as past gems like, say, “The Book Of Love” or “It’s Only Time.” However, more than a few songs reveal some serious poignancy after repeated listens.
“Andrew In Drag” initially comes off like an amusing farce, with its ladies’ man narrator falling madly for a cross-dresser. But it becomes awfully heart-breaking the more you hear it and think about it. This guy isn’t just falling for Andrew in drag, he’s practically ruined by Andrew in drag. He’s unable to fall for any man or woman anymore. And not only that- Andrew’s not even into drag. It was a one-time thing: “I’ll never see that girl again/ he did it as a gag.” There’s no hope of our humble narrator ever fulfilling his burning desire. This is some fucking Shakespearean tragedy right here.
In “The Only Boy In Town,” a woman could totally fall for the boy she’s singing to, if only it weren’t for every other boy alive striking her fancy. In “Machine In Your Hand,” a guy wishes he could be the iPhone-like gizmo for a tech-obsessed crush (“I don’t know why I love you/ you’re not really a person/ more a gadget with meat stuck to it“). The fact that both of these songs feel genuinely romantic is borderline miraculous, and a testament to Merritt’s genius.
Yet there a few tracks where Merritt’s genius takes a smoke break, and not even a boatload of cool synths can rescue them. A particularly disappointing stretch follows the excellent opening sequence of “God Wants Us To Wait,” “Andrew In Drag,” and “Your Girlfriend’s Face.” The sluggish “Born To Love” isn’t helped any by the generic hopeless romantic behind the microphone. “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” doesn’t go anywhere beyond it’s blandly punny unrequited love triangle (“I love Hugh/ and Hugh loves you/ you love me/ and he does not/ I don’t love you/ you don’t love Hugh…“). “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” is barely more inventive than The Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps.” Fortunately, there aren’t any more stinkers until the last track, “All She Cares About Is Mariachi,” which seems to exist merely to rhyme “mariachi” with words like “hibachi” and “Liberace.” (Though I must admit I giggled at the lyric “So go ahead and hire Saatchi & Saatchi/ to advertise the sausage in your pants.”) Any of these tracks could have been redeemed by a great Stephin Merritt melody, but alas, their tunes are as half-assed as their premises.
One of the best things about Love At The Bottom Of The Sea, though, is its brevity- of 15 songs, only 3 go past 2 and a half minutes. So the few weak tracks zip by relatively painlessly. As for the many good-to-great tracks, they pack worlds of luster into their tiny spheres- just like little pearls.