Rating:Love at the Bottom of the Sea was supposed to be Magnetic Fields’ return to form, the re-collision of the two key elements that mastermind Stephin Merritt has been holding separate from fans since 1999’s 69 Love Songs. i, Distortion and Realism were all noble experiments in sound – not in the manner that the band’s previous albums fused electronic soundscapes with folk or showtune song structures, but a snarky retreat from that, in two wildly different directions. A return to artistic form it is not. I’ve always held the Merritt-sung ballads – absent here – higher in the Fields’ ouevre than the rest, but that does not skew my view that the songwriting genius miscalculated the band’s return to its “roots” on Love at the Bottom of the Sea.
It’s a given that one of 69 Love Songs’ most appealing aspects was the mix of no-bullshit, gorgeous pop songs (“Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “All My Little Words,” “Papa Was a Rodeo”) with short, self-referential genre skinny-dips (“My Sentimental Melody,” “Love is Like Jazz”). The Charm of the Highway Strip, the band’s earlier landmark work, held a consistent, melancholy tone and theme, with songs that were just the right amount irreverent.
On Bottom of the Sea though, like on the Fields’ last few albums, those two archetypes are unfortunately and uncomfortably combined. “All She Cares About Is Mariachi” is, yes, a mariachi song about love and mariachi, and “Goin’ Back To The Country” is a dumb ode to the Wyoming, tire swings, “fiddle tunes,” and kids named Leanne and Leroy. On Highway Strip, Merritt exuded a soft spot for the dark, open country roads; here it’s a joke. Furthering the too-shticky genre hopscotch, “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” is a showtune-y electro-jam that suggests that the thumping light of discos, Merritt’s sometime songwriting venue of choice, may finally be getting to his head. The synths that Merritt opts for come off like murky grown-up versions of those on Holiday or Get Lost – not particularly inventive and 21st century or at all kitsch/retro.
Luckily, Merritt has an ace up his sleeve – the much-heralded first single “Andrew in Drag” is reason enough to keep the flawed and trying album around for a few spins. Here Merritt cooks up the perfect pop formula, one that hearkens back to “I Don’t Want To Get Over You” and “Born on a Train” – choruses massive with strums and bouncing bass, heaped over sly electronics and a few lethal hooks. It’s better than any song the band has released in years, and sticks out like a sore thumb here. The slow, oozing desperation in two other highlights, “Born To Lose” and “I Don’t Like Your Tone,” reaches back to the The Charm of the Highway Strip, with Merritt’s grown-up, booming baritone suggesting something sinister rather than romantic.
These highlights are not given fair room to breathe and end under the three-minute mark, like every other song on the album. Furthermore, Merritt’s voice is only present for half of the songs, which certainly isn’t a new development in the band’s discography, but Claudia Gonson isn’t doing goofball, burlesque numbers like “The Horrible Party” and “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre” any favors. Sure, it’s swell that acoustic guitars and synths and piano and feedback are all living in harmony at the Bottom of the Sea again, but maybe Merritt needs to keep fishing and give the tongue-in-cheek showtunes about cliches and love a rest for an album or two.