February 28, 2012

Album Review: The Magnetic Fields' Love At the Bottom of the Sea

A new release by Stephin Merritt and his most infamous project The Magnetic Fields has become somewhat of a mini event within the music community. After all, Merritt is slightly reclusive and very rarely does he and his revolving door of castmates take to the road between new releases. Add to that The Magnetic Fields have paved the way for today's indie pop apprentices through ambitious classics like 69 Love Songs and the synth pop opuses heard on Holiday. Reaching these same creative peaks however hasn't come easy for Merritt since he left Merge Records back in 2004 for the major leagues at Nonesuch. i was a solid extension of 69 Love Songs' baroque pop execution, where as 2008 and 2010's respected releases of Distortion and Realism focused on one-dimensional aspects of The Magnetic Fields' kaleidoscopic sound in the form of fuzzy noise pop and acoustic-laden folk songs. 13 years after parting amicably with Merge, Merritt brings his project home for their 10th studio effort Love At the Bottom of the Sea. Despite best intentions to rekindle past magic however, Merritt and The Magnetic Fields continue to have a tough time creating something fresh without using past successes as a crutch.

Love At the Bottom of the Sea is a delightfully fun and casual listen, but when held to the light of inspection against The Magnetic Fields' impressive back catalog, this new body of material only restores a lower quality connect rather than inciting exciting new ones. Part of that is caused by Merritt's musings, which here are beginning to wear thin with cliché by offering up familiar comical relief in lines about androgyny and homoerotic behavior ("Andrew In Drag," "Infatuation With Your Gyration") or -- in the tracks sung by Magnetic Fields' cool-voiced constant Claudia Gonson -- cowboy love songs ("Goin' Back to the Country,") those sung from the perspective of a bitter woman ("Your Girlfriend's Face," "The Horrible Party") and others dedicated to boys who never seem to be quite like the others ("I'd Go Anywhere With Hugh," "The Only Boy In Town.") Unlike the sharpened black tongue of Morrissey, who never ceases to put a new twist on deprecating social parody despite aging, Merritt's calling card of dark humor and punny lyrics juxtaposed against short, warm melodies are becoming -- and it's painful to admit -- predictable. As Love At the Bottom of the Sea wears on, these familiar clever punchlines result in a chuckle at best, but the impression isn't long-lasting. As for the music behind these songs, Merritt and The Magnetic Fields certainly revisit the synth pop nooks and crannies that most associate their name with (barring a few technical upgrades and new wave flirtations) yet these songs fail to take the band out of their comfort zone with a formula that's been tried before and albeit, for the better.

Stephin Merritt's pop sensibilities are not to be dismissed despite these glaring criticisms. Anyone who counts themselves as a Magnetic Fields fan is likely to find something to enjoy in their 10th LP for the mere fact that any Magnetic Fields is better than no Magnetic Fields at all. If you're looking for a quick fix of Merritt's signature sarcasm, short (at times, too short) sugary pop songs and the occasional witty one-liner, Love At the Bottom of the Sea may do the trick until he and The Magnetic Fields deliver again. As far as being an essential listen that sits alongside the project's acclaimed catalog however, it -- like everything beyond 69 Love Songs -- just can't seem to rekindle that spark.

The Magnetic Fields' Love At the Bottom of the Sea will be released March 6, 2012 on Merge Records.

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