The conventional wisdom regarding the Magnetic Fields’ latest offering Love at the Bottom of the Sea is that Stephin Merritt and company have finally come up with the proper follow-up to 69 Love Songs, both in theme and its throwback synth-heavy indie-pop aesthetic. In this case, the general consensus happens to be right: After what seemed like countless projects that felt too hung up on a particular thematic conceit or formal formula—although what else is 69 Love Songs but the ultimate concept-driven gimmick?—Merritt’s merry band has returned to what it does best, capturing snapshots of love from unexpected perspectives in unforeseen ways. While you could interpret Merritt as running away from what made him as close to a household name as any indie artist could be as he jumped from one high-concept project to another, ranging from a solo effort translating Beijing opera to the Jesus and Mary Chain-styled one-off Distortion, he’s come full circle back to where he belongs as the writer of love songs that are pretty, touching, smart, and absurd—often at the same time.
At its best, Love at the Bottom of the Sea adds some new chapters to that great American songbook of love to which Merritt’s career has more or less been devoted. Indeed, the strongest tracks on Love at the Bottom of the Sea could have fit quite well on 69 Love Songs, with Merritt’s words as witty, tender, and biting as ever. Set to reverb-y electro-pop keyboards, the opener “God Wants Us to Wait” is a funny take on social mores that prods the paradox of how a so-called self-proclaimed moral majority only mythifies and obsesses over sex when it’s making a big song and dance about repressing your urges. When Claudia Gonson sings, “Could you be happy in the knowledge of sin? / Although it may not be a crime in our state / I love you, baby, but God wants us to wait,” Magnetic Fields is sneaking in some political commentary, questioning what kinds of love are allowed or not, and why. Even more entertaining, provocative, and heady talking sex is the first single “Andrew in Drag”, on which Merritt’s at his gender troubling best as he messes with accepted ideas of desire. Taking on a singing persona as a “ladies’ man” attracted to a woman who doesn’t exist played by a drag queen, while insisting he’s not gay, Merritt is basically delivering a Gender Studies 101 lecture in the form of jangly pop ditty.
Of course, Merritt doesn’t have to be socially engaged or theoretically profound all the time to make his piercing, dead-on observations about relationships and romance. Perhaps no title offers a more befitting way to describe Merritt than “Born for Love”, which is about shooting for a platonic ideal, but ultimately going after what you can get: So while in one breath Merritt bellows, like a preacher, “Got down on my knees / And I prayed for love,” he changes his tune in the next, almost begging, “But I won’t mind if you just take me home.” Indeed, what sets Merritt apart as a songwriter is his ability to balance his hopelessly romantic side with his world-weary humor. The unrequited love triangle of “I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh” is sweet, poignant, earnest, and amusing in its missed connections, as is “The Only Boy in Town”, on which Shirley Simms professes her love without committing to anything—when she sings, “Oh, if you only were the only boy in town / For then I could not play the field and let you down,” what she really means is that he isn’t, so she is and does. Okay, maybe the new wavey “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” isn’t exactly subtle about choosing lust over old-fashioned romance, but, then again, could a set of Magnetic Fields love songs be complete without getting a little down-and-dirty?
However, the flipside of having as excessive and overactive an imagination as Merritt does is that he can zoom right past good humor to a joke that goes nowhere or a double entendre that flies over your head. Although it’s not like 69 Love Songs didn’t have its share of skippable tracks, there just aren’t as many places to hide when you only have one disc’s worth of songs instead of three. In particular, the oddly graphic revenge fantasy “Your Girlfriend’s Face” sticks out like a sore thumb, so hit-you-over-the-head blunt that you think you must be missing some subtext when you hear lyrics like, “I want the whole bloody place / Red with your girlfriend’s face,” when you probably aren’t. The booty-calling “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre” grows old fast once you get its schitck, just as “The Horrible Party” is a meandering mess of self-indulgent details describing the anything goes social scene. And the album definitely could’ve used a little more self-editing with the out-of-place western-themed piece “I’m Goin’ Back to the Country”, which is as convincing and authentic as a city slicker wearing a western shirt.
Then again, some of Merritt’s best work here—as always—transforms his most absurd and eccentric ideas into songs that tell about love from different angles that are nevertheless relatable, like the way he longs to be as inseparable from his lover as a smartphone on “The Machine in Your Hand” or how he blends in some seemingly incongruous mariachi flourishes to his bouncy keyboard-driven sound to accentuate the maudlin qualities of “All She Cares About Is Mariachi”. It’s these out-of-left-field pieces that tell the moral of the story on Love at the Bottom of the Sea and Stephin Merritt’s career: He’s got a place in his heart for what, who, and how everyone loves so long as he can turn it into a song. And since there are even more stories to tell and love songs to write that haven’t yet been, it’s hard to see the Magnetic Fields going out of business and style any time soon.