Over a decade has passed since The Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs, an expansive, three-disc project that featured an exhaustive amount of songwriting styles and lyrics that all centered around a simple yet complex subject: obviously, Love. It has and will likely forever remain the group’s most well-known work, and rather than try to top it, band leader Stephin Merritt wisely chose on the band’s successive albums to deepen and expand the different aspects that made 69 Love Songs great. Obviously he had a lot to choose from, lyrically or musically, and after a five-year hiatus The Magnetic Fields released a trilogy of albums that each focused on individual topics that were previously hinted at but not fully explored. 2004’s i exclusively featured songs written from the first-person perspective. 2008’s Distortion aped their Pavement sound-alikes with feedback and distorted guitars. And 2010’s Realism explored their dreamy folksy side, using guitars and ukuleles to create abstract soundscapes that rivaled most of their contemporary space-rock bands.
While The Magnetic Field’s latest release, 2012’s Love At The Bottom of the Sea, titularly brings to mind 69 Love Songs, the band continues to explore a different musical aspect from their masterpiece. In the case of Bottom of the Sea, it is their experimentation with synthesizers, a feature that had been conspicuously absent on i, Distortion, and Realism, which were dubbed by fans and critics as “the no-synth trilogy.” When making the album, Merritt had mentioned, “most of the synthesizers on the record didn’t exist when we were last using synthesizers,” and the band seems genuinely enthused to utilize them again on their chamber-pop arrangements. (One of the instruments listed in the liner notes is a “fun machine.” Any guesses to what that is?)
Most of Merritt’s favorite lyrical themes are intact for Bottom of the Sea, from gender-bending (the first single, “Andrew in Drag”), to name-dropping locations, (Wyoming in “Goin’ Back to the Country”), to humorous modern takes on fairy tales (“I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies”). The voices similarly have carried over, with Merritt again trading off lead vocals with his female bandmates Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms on each successive song.
However, it is the synthesizers that have stolen the show, and they give an album a surreal tone that had been missing in their previous three albums. Merritt’s lyrical wit is still apparent on Bottom of the Sea, but most of the time it is the synthesizers that provide the punchline. Sometimes, the numerous ambient sounds add to the bizarre nature of the song; when the band expresses that they want to be “The Machine In Your Hand,” the metallic clinking that recurs throughout the song suggests that the transformation is already taking place. Other times it clashes humorously; the sweeping, overwrought minor-key chords of “Born for Love” suggest that the singer is a bit too obsessed with the idea.
And while it’s nice to hear the band return to this sound, the over-arching silliness of Love at the Bottom of the Sea makes the album a bit difficult to take seriously at times. What made the synth-driven tracks so enjoyable on 69 Love Songs (see: “Fido, Your Leash is Too Long” or “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”) is that they provided a perfect counterpoint to the ballads; short tunes with frivolous lyrics that were a welcome breather after deep, thought provoking songs that were bordering on becoming overbearing. On Bottom of the Sea, ALL of the songs are in humor, and even though no song goes over two minutes and 40 seconds, it gets tiresome listening to joke after joke after joke without a reprieve. I doubt the idea would have worked even as an EP. It is still admittedly fun to hear Merritt’s songwriting again take on a surreal tone, but for those still expecting a true musical follow-up to the sprawling 69 Love Songs, prepare to be disappointed.
3 out of 5