Can a sigh of relief also be a sigh of condescension? On the surface, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is exactly what many Magnetic Fields fans have been hoping for: a return to the freewheeling, synthesized sounds of the group’s earliest records. But it is also the most suffocatingly arch Magnetic Fields album ever, an unsparing rejection of mushy sentimentality and intentional imprecision. It is militantly anti-pop pop music, a blast in small doses but a bit much for 15 songs straight.
Stephin Merritt has always favored a theatrical mode of address, and Love At The Bottom Of The Sea often sounds like a collection of lesser songs from notional musicals. Single “Andrew In Drag” is built from tones that could be sound effects as easily as they could be synthesizer presets, the likes of which haven’t graced a Magnetic Fields record since 1999’s beloved 69 Love Songs. Merritt has fully embraced the character and uniqueness of his technically limited voice, ascending in the song’s chorus from a self-aware deadpan into a faux-soaring self-aware deadpan. When it strikes a balance between exuberance and obsessive formalism, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is irresistible.
But do we really need “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre?” Once you get the joke of “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” (hint: you just got it), is there much to take away from the song other than an appreciation of Merritt’s thoroughness and pitch-perfect execution? Can you guess the words Merritt rhymes with “mariachi” in all three verses of “All She Cares About Is Mariachi?” Without the broader context of a theatrical narrative or the emotional signifiers of conventional pop music, many of the songs here feel like A+ exercises from the world’s most advanced songwriting workshop.
Now on his fourth Magnetic Fields record since 69 Love Songs, Merritt has made it abundantly clear that he isn’t interested in making music that makes ukulele-wielding 20-something NPR listeners weep. 69 Love Songs wasn’t an emotionally affecting album so much as a concept album that happened to be about emotionally affecting music. It wasn’t “sincere” in the goateed singer-songwriter sense, but as with Merritt idol Stephen Sondheim’s best work, it expertly mined the relationship between specific craft and broad emotional resonance. Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is a fun and uncompromising record, but very little of it sticks in the head or the heart.