On the one hand, you’ve got to hand it to Stephin Merritt; in a noble effort to keep his band, the Magnetic Fields, interesting in the wake of their landmark 69 Love Songs, he’s imposed a series of aesthetic restraints on his material, with the hope of unifying each release while ultimately diversifying his catalogue. On the other hand, these conceptual conceits have more often than not thwarted Merritt’s more freewheeling impulses, while boxing each successive record into a specific sound which Merritt hasn’t always been able to transcend. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t produced some wonderful music—2008's Distortion married the titular effect to many of Merritt’s most agile melodies, while otherwise forgettable efforts such as 2004's self-satisfied i and 2010's acoustic-based Realism still turned up some of his most ingratiating standalone tunes. But the fact remains that there hasn’t been an essential Magnetic Fields record in well over a decade now.
On the surface at least, Love at the Bottom of the Sea seems to represent a concerted effort on the part of Merritt to re-embrace what made the Magnetic Fields so exciting in the ‘90s, while dropping the conceptual shticks and simply playing to his skill for creating endearing pop music. Which is what makes the finished product so curious. Everything Merritt touches at this point sounds like the Magnetic Fields, but Love at the Bottom of the Sea sounds especially like the Magnetic Fields as we’ve come to know them. Hell, it sounds almost exactly like what fans have been clamoring for ever since Merritt felt the need to self-impose stylistic barriers on his band. It’s hard to quantify things like spirit and, even more so, feel, but while the band’s tenth album certainly sounds the part, it just as often comes up feeling hollow or, worse yet, tired, from a thematic vantage. In other words, this is comfort food Magnetic Fields: sweet, sometimes tart, but fleeting—and even, on occasion, downright stale.
The talking point of the album is, of course, the return of the synthesizer, the Magnetic Fields' weapon of choice throughout the ‘90s and one they became so identified with that Merritt was all but forced to set it aside for the last three albums. So the mood of the record is a welcome return to cheeky, left-field synthetics, but for his part Merritt seems uninterested in mining any sort of topic he hasn’t turned over constantly in the past decade. One needn’t hear a note of the music to construct a general thematic outline of songs like “Born for Love,” “The Only Boy in Town,” and “Goin’ Back to the Country,” three titles I’m shocked to find Merritt hadn’t utilized until now. There’s a part of me that feels like this may be an unreasonable complaint, like any of us should expect more out of Merritt at this point, a man who’s built a career soundtracking the plights of the loneliest amongst us. Then again, what made The Charm of the Highway Strip and 69 Love Songs so transcendent was Merritt’s ability to take conceptualized lyrics and filter them through an array of unique arrangements and instrumentation. When Love at the Bottom of the Sea doesn’t sound nostalgic it simply sounds busy, and with little gravity imparted via Merritt’s songwriting, many of the tracks are left to spin giddily for two minutes with little consequence.
Merritt has too much melodic acumen, however, to not score some inedible hits. “Andrew in Drag” is arguably the best, funniest, and most memorable single he’s released since the late ‘90s, working off inflammatory content to somehow produce pop music digestible to the masses. Meanwhile, bookending the track list are two tunes which ably update the extremes of the 69 Love Songs template: With its New Order-nodding synth lead and deadpan vocal courtesy of Shirley Simms, “God Wants Us to Wait” takes its abstinence theme to identifiable lengths, while “All She Cares About Is Mariachi” finds Merritt pining for a disinterested lover through a lens at once humorous and tragic. But between these highlights lie a series of unfortunate stylistic digressions (the annoying, anti-dance number “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)”; the awkward waltz of “My Husband's Pied-a-Terre”) and just plain forgettable synth-pop exercises (“The Machine in Your Hand”; “The Horrible Party”) which all exist in better forms on prior Magnetic Fields records. And save for late album gem “Quick!,” even the highlights sadly lack emotional heft, the aforementioned intangible which so elevates the best Magnetic Fields material from negligible pop to meaningful spiritual resource.
It may very well be beyond Merritt to put out a truly bad record at this point in his career, his melodic sensibility and restless nature precluding any kind of grand scale disaster. For better or worse, he couldn’t sound like anything other than himself if he tried, which ultimately may be Love at the Bottom of the Sea’s most notable shortcoming. There’s a distinct lack of vitality and necessity permeating these tunes, and while it’s nice to hear Merritt return to a sound that helped define an entire subset of indie-pop, one can’t help but feel like Merritt could write a majority of these songs in his sleep. Granted, one man’s wheelhouse is another’s divine inspiration, but until Merritt ups the stakes beyond quick change aesthetic routines, we’re bound to be left with facsimiles of the Magnetic Fields of yore, all brightly accented and instantly recognizable, but only intermittently satisfying. [InRO]