The Magnetic Fields Go Heavy on the Sugar

For longtime Magnetic Fields fans, the best part of listening to Love at the Bottom of the Sea is getting to hear continued production from The Magnetic Fields. The songs are simple and catchy, evoking nostalgia for something that may or may not have ever existed; Stephin Merritt’s memories transcend the music and melt into the brains of the album’s listeners.

The album’s lyrics are off-beat and corny and, true to the band’s form, they are about nonsense like falling in love with your best friend in drag (“Andrew in Drag”) and hiring a hitman to take out your friend and his girlfriend (“Your Girlfriend’s Face”). Most notably different about Love at the Bottom of the Sea is that it features prominent synthesizers that have been missing from the band’s past three albums.

Yet, the album is a bit underwhelming and unsatisfying. All of the songs are around the 2:30 mark or under, and although they are straight up pop songs, they lack that satisfying kick needed that makes you just let a short album ride on repeat. In being so short, the album prompts fond recollections of 69 Love Songs and the impudent lyrical bitterness of Distortion. Although, the issue is that the album does not fully make its own mark, as it forces you to wonder why you aren’t just listening to previous works instead. Whereas there’s something cool about keeping up the group’s traditions, Love at the Bottom of the Sea might leave new listeners out of the loop.

There are a lot of flashes of interesting digital melodies and beats, but the album seems almost too sugary and too cute (even though it never seemed possible to say that about a Magnetic Fields album). Much of the wordplay is in bad taste, but less-so in the ironically clever way for which the group is known. “I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh” is a good for a couple of chuckles with lyrics like, “I’d do anything for him / Sacre-bleu when the lights are dim / I’d entertain each and every whim / I’d do anything for him.” Unfortunately, the song’s humor fizzes out before reaching a lyrical climax. The song stays cheeky, but lacks the snide combination of irony and sincerity that comes through in other “cute” songs by The Magnetic Fields, like “The Doll’s Tea Party” from Realism or “Roses” on 69 Love Songs. Other songs are toe tappers and have a more distinct direction like “Andrew in Drag” and “Infatuation (With Your Gyration),” but they’re not the songs that you’ll catch yourself humming later, even if you can nod your head along to the music pleasantly.

While never a disagreeable listen, Love at the Bottom of the Sea isn’t really a definitive work for the band. It’s more of a fun little way for the band to play with synthesizers again. If you enjoy The Magnetic Fields’ style, the album is still worth a spin. For new listeners, try picking up some of the band’s older material to get a sense of the group’s sound.

–Paul Senker

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