Album of the Week: The Magnetic Fields’ ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea’

The Magnetic Fields are, quite simply, the only band that I know who can swear in a song and make it sound romantic or, as in their new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea (2012), use the word “fag” and make it seem sweet (“Andrew in Drag”). Another of the album’s songs – an electronica-based pop song detailing the process of putting a contract out on your girlfriend while being high on crystal meth (“My Girlfriend’s Face”) – is endlessly singable and addictive.

Other Magnetic Fields’ albums have been dark, but this album has a much more consistently thick and murky thread running through it. The album solidly campaigns for misanthropy rather than gloominess or disconsolation (things TMF have been accused of in the past). From parodying religion (“God Wants Us to Wait”) to contract killing, to abandoning humanity entirely (“I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies”), to tunes such as “Machine in Your Hand,” where Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson brightly quip, “You’re not really a person, more a gadget with meat stuck on it,” this album is quite different than any preceding collection. Of course, it must also be said that alongside the pop music, disassociation from other human beings has really never seemed so romantic, wonderful, and fun! Only The Magnetic Fields could do or say these things and utterly convince you. If Stephin Merritt was a snake-oil salesman in a previous life, I’d buy every last bottle from him.

For the last few years, since the release of their epic-mega-indie-super hit 69 Love Songs (1999), each album has felt like the work of a different band. This is the beauty of The Magnetic Fields. While 69 Love Songs is an unbeatable album, it’s not something that they should be held up to every single time they make a new record. Stephin Merritt and company take the authority that they gained through that 1999 release and use it to their advantage. It’s the blockbuster-hit theory: once you have a big hit, you now have artistic freedom. Your audience may constantly be hoping for 69 Love Songs, Pt. 2, but all you really have to do is provide solidly challenging and motivated work. This is something TMF are quite skilled at doing. It’s an unfortunate thing in our world that many people cannot move forward with their art.

The Magnetic Fields have not used synthesizers on an album since 69 Love Songs. For some, this decision works perfectly. For others…not so much. While Love is summarily supposed to be their “homecoming” album, it really seems to be a summation of all the music that they’ve made thus far, with added instrumentation. It’s undeniable that electronic-based Charm of the Highway Strip (1994), Distortion (2008), and Realism (2010) are present in this album. However, Merritt has stated that his musical focus on Love is more experimental and chaotic; thus his use of instruments like a Cracklebox or a Buchla Source of Uncertainty Module provide him with a base upon which to build his new songs. While Love may not be everyone’s favorite “pop album,” the layers that went into the building of the piece are, like the band itself, various and many. Merritt’s layered approach is itself a triumph in a music world that is so heavily over-processed and generic. I’m satisfied with an album that I can think about and listen to rather than simply sing along with. I have plenty of those, and I’m sure there are more on the way. So pass the misanthropy and snake oil, I’ll take all you got.

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