Digestible and lean, The Magnetic Fields’ latest record, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, attempts to have it both ways: while each Fields album after their massive, masterful magnum opus 69 Love Songs has been more laser-focused than that thrillingly kitchen-sink record, Love at the Bottom packs 15 swift tracks into its sinewy 34-minute runtime. For this we can thank Stephin Merritt, Magnetic Fields maestro and patron saint of indie kids who scrawl their lyrical sketches on cocktail napkins and dog-eared steno pads; like 69 Love Songs, the new record hits and misses, but barrels so quickly through its song cycle that it doesn’t matter, because if a song doesn’t quite stick the landing, there’s always another coming up very, very soon.
Merritt clearly hasn’t missed a step; being a prolific songwriter doesn’t really mean anything if all you have in your arsenal is half-cocked concepts, but Stephin’s never quite lost his way in that regard. Like fellow man-of-a-thousand-songs Robert Pollard, he appears to be keenly aware of how long to let a song go on; consider that some of the best Pollard-penned Guided By Verses jams are remarkably short, and the importance of economy in songwriting comes into sharp focus. And then there’s the fact that Merritt is, quite simply, good at songwriting; he has a way with a barbed lyric, can cut to a song’s humane core via sharp-tongued sarcasm or unadorned sentiment, and seems to be an endless fount of melody, never recycling tunes from earlier glories, instead preferring to breed a certain familiarity of spirit.
Consider first single, “Andrew In Drag”, wherein Merritt (also one of the group’s revolving frontpersons) spills lovelorn couplets about the title character, “the only girl I’ll ever love.” Imbued with innuendo (“the moment he walked on that stage, my tail began to wag; I’m like a little wiener dog for Andrew in drag”), frankness (“a pity she does not exist, a shame he’s not a fag”), and unabashed longing (“I’ll pine away forevermore for Andrew in drag”), it’s a perfect crystallization of each of Merritt’s songwriting strengths. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a spectacularly classy pop number, straddling irreverence and melancholy with remarkable precision of tone, and boasting a throaty, ebullient chorus. Merritt’s singing voice is in fine form here: he’s grown, over the years, into a stately baritone, slowly shedding his mumbly disaffect over the course of several albums to reveal an assured vocalist underneath.
Opening number “Your Girlfriend’s Face” hinges on both the bait-and-switch of an intriguing title (successful, since what seems like it would be a wistful “Jessie’s Girl”-style lyric turns out to complete the sentence “I’ve hired a hitman to blow off…”) and the juxtaposition of a grisly lyric to a cheery indie-pop melody. “God Wants Us To Wait”, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like, a conversation between randy lovers who choose the promise-ring route to end their date, except affixed to an urbane, minor-key Pet Shop Boys instrumental. The milieu of the day seems to be the canned electronica of pre-69 Love Songs Fields–shades of The Charm of the Highway Strip–and while their folksier, more organic compositions seem to often yield the most soulful results, Magnetic Fields have always made this work surprisingly well. Squelching Casio beats would get old quickly if the band didn’t frequently filter their varied, left-field influences through them; take “The Horrible Party”, which recreates swaying Celtic folk with circus organs and drum machines, or “All She Cares About Is Mariachi”, a sweeping, Pro Tools take on–well, three guesses, guys.
Love at the Bottom of the Sea isn’t quite primo Magnetic Fields, of course–though individual track inspirations are often quite disparate, they are all similarly processed, and somewhere in the album’s midsection, tracks start to bleed into one another before finishing strong at the end–but it’s an efficient, pleasant reminder of this collective’s numerous strengths. Strength one is clearly Stephin, a man who establishes himself album after album as a Great American Songwriter; last year’s Obscurities, released under his own name, is a better distillation of exactly why, but Love at the Bottom is often lovable on its own Merritts.