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Record Review: The Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea

By / Posted on 13 March 2012

The Magnetic Fields — Love at the Bottom of the SeaThere are several entire generations of snarky hipster snobs who can identify the exact moment they became aware of the Magnetic Fields—and, by association, songsmith Stephin Merritt. Some were drawn to the instrumentals used throughout Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Some were wooed by the dark humor of the musical accompaniment for Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books. More often than not, though, it’s some late-night college party alternative chillout session where somebody-obviously-cooler-than-you has put on 69 Love Songs, the triple concept album that was instantly labelled a classic and the indisputable peak of Merritt’s creative work.

It’s nearly impossible to talk about a new Magnetic Fields album without referencing the conceptual themes of their work since 69 Love Songs. i was based entirely around the first-person perspective, Distortion was a modern recreation of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, and Realism was a counterargument of acoustic string antipop. The themes were interesting but ultimately unneccessary framing devices that Merritt could only get away with because he’d already been embraced as the greatest songwriter of the entire literary environment in a post-McSweeney’s climate. Surprise, surprise, then, here we are with a brand-new Magnetic Fields album that, near as we can tell, is entirely devoid of an overbearing theme. Sometimes bands just write songs.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea opens with blaring synth-funk arps that would make every modern pop starlet jealous that she didn’t have that hook for her new comeback single. The tune attached to those stabs is “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” an aggressively catchy pop masterpiece from the perspective of a jilted woman who hires an assassin to take out her ex-lover, but not until after the horribly grotesque murder of his new girl. This is immediately followed by lead single “Andrew in Drag,” where Stephin laments the knowledge that he will never again see the love of his life, as that particular heterosexual man was only dressed as a woman for a joke. Ah… genuinely refreshing. So good to have another Magnetic Fields album to stand out from the monotony of commercial pop and angst-filled rock.

The album is filled with similar sentiment in vernacular and form that is all-too familiar and comfortable for longtime fans of Merrit and the Magnetic Fields, but that is in no way a bad thing. “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” is a full-on new wave throwback that could easily be mistook for a lose Human League or Animotion b-side. “Goin’ Back to the Country” is a remarkably fun jaunt of exploratory square dance pop. “The Horrible Party” simultaneously demonstrates how ever Magnetic FIelds song matches its music perfectly to the songs theme by exploiting obnoxious music performance and awful handclaps too high up in the mix to tell the tale of an uncomfortable party as well as remind us exactly why Merritt has spent so much time post-69 Love Songs writing songs for stage and screen.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea is easily the Magnetic Fields most cinematic album. The songs collected herein feel like glimpses into the raucous and emotional Rocky Horror sequel that nobody has seen yet. Like all of Merritt’s past efforts, the tracks on this record seem almost too simple on first listen and reveal their complexity and grow endearing on repeated listens. The worst thing that can be said about Love at the Bottom of the Sea is that it is merely another Magnetic Fields album.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.