Graded on a Curve:
The Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea

On Love at the Bottom of the Sea, The Magnetic Fields reengage with the synth-pop that made them one of the ‘90s most artistically fruitful acts. But something’s missing, or more accurately two things; the peaks of Stephin Merritt’s once exemplary songwriting and the music that made his tunes such a unique listening experience.

It was pretty much inevitable that 69 Love Songs, The Magnetic Fields’ massive 3-volume set of thematic yet emotionally diverse pop gems, while providing an embarrassment of riches that more than capped-off their distinguished ‘90’s work, would also prove to be an impossible act to follow. In fact Merritt seemed to sense this very fact by delving into three albums that have come to be called the “no-synth trilogy;” the first two, 2004’s i and 2008’s Distortion, were generally well received efforts that largely succeeded in their aims of stylistic divergence. However 2010’s Realism, by no means a failure, seemed to locate a certain weariness in the group and provoked restlessness from longtime fans of the band desirous for them to get back to what they did best.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea is intended as that record. After a three album departure to Nonesuch, it finds The Magnetic Fields returning to Merge, the label that issued their most highly regarded work, and it features the synth-pop instrumentation that proved so crucial to the group’s sticking out in a clamorous sea of ‘90s indie guitar bands. But ultimately this new record sounds less like The Magnetic Fields of old and more like an inferior version of a once near-unimpeachable act.

A nagging part of the problem lies in a gradual change in Merritt’s songwriting. One interesting indulgence found on 69 Love Songs was its occasional flare-ups of wordplay that might inspire a laugh, a shake of the head, or an eye roll at the premeditative nature of their lack of subtlety. This tactic generally worked exceptionally well, mainly because Merritt’s style has never been about sincerity. Instead, it revels in an old, pre-rock artificiality; it’s not about the purging of the soul but the exaltation of the song. The infrequently blunt, sometimes even corny lines found on 69 Love Songs found him closer to Cole Porter than ever.

But on Love at the Bottom of the Sea, these head-shakers and eye-rollers have codified into a strategy of near or outright groaners. This causes “Your Girlfriend’s Face” (for just one example) to plummet from a song of broken-relationship revenge into an unappealing parody of one (in the evenings I devised your death/being buried alive on crystal meth). For every song that successfully navigates this sensibility, like the pre-release single “Andrew in Drag,” there is one that doesn’t, such as the abstinence mocking “God Wants Us to Wait.” It used to be that Merritt’s lyrics felt instantly classic. Now they too often feel calculatedly cheesy.

And it’s not that every song Merritt wrote in the ‘90s was brilliant and every release an impeccable masterwork. His batting average was impressively high, but 1995’s Get Lost was a less significant album than its predecessor from the previous year, The Charm of the Highway Strip. But if Get Lost was minor, it was still totally consistent with Merritt’s disciplined excavation of early pop tradition and even included one of his finest ever songs, “All the Umbrellas in London.” And Strip could engage with the tricky allure of country music while never once getting within spitting distance of shallowness or parody.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea holds a number of very good songs (“Andrew in Drag,” “The Only Boy in Town,” “I Don’t Like Your Tone,” “All She Cares About is Mariachi”) but I’m hesitant to call any of them great, at least against the standard Merritt once set for his work. And the less than good ones (“God Wants Us to Wait,” “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” “Goin’ Back to the Country,” “The Horrible Party”) make the album unpalatable as a start to finish listen. Realism shouldered a similar problem, but that felt like an aberration. For a record touted as The Magnetic Fields’ return to synth-pop form to register as so hit-and-miss, and with its highs so earthbound, is distressing.

But this LP actually doesn’t sound very much like their synth-pop of old. Frankly, it’s much too slick. One of the finest qualities of the group’s music up to and including Get Lost is how they elevated cheap tech into a clinical prettiness that didn’t really recall any prior synth-pop models. Additionally, their attention to detail was magnificent, allowing a compilation track like “Take Ecstasy with Me” to be as strong as anything in the first half of their discography.

While it’s true that many of 69 Love Songs’ more techno informed tracks did radiate with a slicker quality, they also very often featured an appealing sparseness (and again, top-flight songwriting) that’s simply nowhere to be found on Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Minus the vocals of Merritt, Claudia Gonson, and Shirley Simms, it’s doubtful I’d recognize much of the music here as being The Magnetic Fields.

I want to be clear that I’m not penalizing the group for sounding different than they did in 1995. Bigger production and less inventive instrumentation wouldn’t be at all a problem if the songs were stronger. And regarding those songs, I’d welcome their change in direction if it was successful more often, but sadly that isn’t the case. And if I am unconsciously pining for a sound that’s over fifteen years old it’s in large part because Love at the Bottom of the Sea has been so heavily identified as a reengagement with the synth-pop that made them such a lauded band.

But The Magnetic Fields have delivered a record that amplifies a double meaning in “return to form.” Yes, in the strict sense they have reacquainted themselves with the formal aspects of synth-pop. But in terms of sheer quality, the band hasn’t returned to anything. Instead, they’ve made the least successful record in their long existence, a circumstance that finds them squarely in uncharted territory.

Graded on a Curve: C-

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