Some critics and fans greeted the Magnetic Fields’ 2012 album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, as a potential return to past form just based on the fact it was performed on synthesizers. The instrument was once prominent in the Magnetic Fields sound but lessened on their epic 69 Love Songs (1999) and disappeared from some of the albums after that. Of course Love at the Bottom of the Sea wasn’t a retreat, the songs were a bit madcap and their use of synthesizers unconventional. Any one who said it reminded them of the earliest Magnetic Fields albums was lying.
The related group Future Bible Heroes—the trio of Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson and Chris Ewen—has always relied on synthesizers, though it’s been Ewen playing them. Yet their third album, Partygoing, is their first since 2002, which makes it doubtful the group has been fresh on the minds of today’s young record-buyers. That’s probably why Merge is releasing Partygoing simultaneously with a boxset of all three albums and their related EPs.
Of the three albums, Partygoing might be the one that sounds most like early Magnetic Fields, at least on the surface. The synthesizers are less strange than on 2002’s Eternal Youth, though as with all of their albums, the more you dig your ears into the synthesizers the more layers reveal themselves. Meritt has said the first and last songs (“A Drink Is Just the Thing” and “When Evening Falls on Tinseltown”) are songs he wrote a while back, and both would have fit well on Get Lost (1995) or the Sixths albums. “Sadder Than the Moon”, the second song, also seems like classic Merritt material, not just because it’s at least his eighth song with “moon” in the title (there are three on Get Lost). Another thing the album shares with 1997’s Memories of Love, the Future Bible Heroes’ debut, is the 50/50 split on lead vocals, where Gonson will sing lead on one song, Merritt the next, and so on.
On the one hand, Partygoing is refreshingly in sync with the group’s first two albums. On the other, each feels like its own concept album of sorts. If Memories of Love was a slightly fantastical collection of dreams of love, lust and their related disappointments; and Eternal Youth gave the same a subtext of vampires, ghosts and the apocalypse; Partygoing is about nighclubs and partying…sort of.
The album starts overtly sad and slow, grounding the songs in heartbreak before picking up more of a partying vibe. “Living, Loving, Partygoing” stands as a theme song of sorts for the album. To a club tempo, Gonson chronicles parties (“we took god knows what/and danced on the lawn”) in a slightly detached way that hints at a certain monotony to the wildness without really acknowledging it. In its chorus “living, loving… partygoing”, she pauses long enough before the last word to allow us to imagine a certain amount of weariness, even sadness, behind this all.
There’s a nihilism to these parties. One radio-ready chorus/advertising jingle tells us to “Keep Your Children in a Coma”, to avoid a whole mess of evils—molesting priests, bullies, brain-numbing gadgets. Another memorable song finds Merritt contemplating how hard it is to live a life that’s thoroughly evil (“Satan, Your Way Is a Hard One”). The evilest-sounding thing on the album might be Merritt’s robotic background vocals on “How Very Strange”, where he plays the part of the devil on Gonson’s shoulder, while together they describe a relationship of pain and domination. The song fades out with them still going, suggesting this dialogue could continue on an endless loop, for them or plenty of other humans.
If the album’s characters drink and dance to make everything go black, to forget current events, a few of the songs put the reasons in economic terms that might ring true for many. The album’s first real entreatment to dance—the third track—is a suicide song titled “Let’s Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)”. Love and life once seemed easy, the song tells us, but now making money is impossible, the future is bleak and life seems like a long slow chore. Gonson sings, “Can’t afford the children/can’t afford the rent/all our money’s stolen/all our future’s spent”. Later song titles include “Love Is a Luxury I Can No Longer Afford” and “Digging My Own Grave”. Why dig your own grave? To save money, of course, and because life without love is bleak.
One solution to the pain and loneliness of life is to drink yourself to oblivion. And why drink the cheap stuff? “Drink Nothing But Champagne”—which resembles Momus greatly and also boasts mock cameos from both David Bowie and Aleister Crowley—gives kids the life lesson to eschew water and drink only champagne. That song sets up the album’s closing sunset moment “When Evening Falls on Tinseltown”, which lets all of the apocalyptic partygoing gently slide off to the side, into the whirring and bubbling of synthesizers. It ends with its narrator declaring, in face of celebrity culture and rampant consumerism, that she’ll be selling her house and buying a Geodesic dome—doing more with less, perhaps, or going into hiding.