The Magnetic Fields are a strange band. Fronted by openly gay Stephin Merritt, who holds Irving Berlin to higher esteem than The Beatles and sings in a distinctive monotone, the Fields released several memorable albums in the ‘90s before finishing the decade with 69 Love Songs. 69 Love Songs was both one of the best albums of the decade and one of the most artistically fascinating albums ever. It was both a blessing and a curse for the band: thanks to it, they’ll be remembered as one of the all-time great bands, but they’ll also never live it down. Every album they release will automatically be compared to it.
Still, you have to give Stephen Merritt credit. If most of us wrote sixty-nine songs as good as the ones on that album, we’d spread them out between five albums and then retire. Merritt kept on chugging along, though, with the Magnetic Fields releasing i in2004, Distortion in 2008, and Realism in 2010. These three albums are known as the “no-synth trilogy,” as they were all recorded without the use of synthesizers (a prominent instrument in their early records). These were all decent records, but critics were predictably skeptical. Writing for Stylus, Akiva Gottlieb said that i wasn’t nearly as good a concept album as 69 Love Songs (obviously), while Jesse Cataldo of Slant Magazine said he wasn’t even a fan of 69 Love Songswhile giving Realism a 1.5/5.
In 2011, after finishing the trilogy, Merritt released Obscurities, a very good compilation of unreleased tracks, one of which was recorded during the 69 Love Songs sessions. Obscurities was superior to all of the no-synth trilogy, and things got exciting when it was announced that the next Magnetic Fields album, titled Love at the Bottom of the Sea, was going to be released by Merge Records, the same record company that released their magnum opus.
Some first thoughts about the album: synthesizers are back, the songs are very short (every track is under three minutes), and some of Stephin Merritt’s funniest songwriting ever appears here. The opening track, “God Wants Us to Wait,” is brilliant. It’s especially relevant at the moment, where Lady Antebellum’s pseudo-Christian bullshit anthem “Just a Kiss” seems to be playing every time a radio is turned on. Stephin Merritt probably didn’t intend it, but “God Wants Us to Wait” seems like direct satire of that song.
But, how is the album as a whole? Well, the fact that they’ve returned to Merge doesn’t mean they had their mind set on another masterpiece. In fact, this isn’t even as good as the no-synth trilogy. There’s alot of filler here and, worst of all, a lot of it is sung by the female vocalists in the band, Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms. I love both of their voices but, unlike Merritt’s, they get tiring quickly. On 69 Love Songs, for example, they sang on seven songs each, and never back-to-back. Here, they take up half the album, and it can get quite migraine-inducing.
So, Love at the Bottom of the Sea isn’t the great new Magnetic Fields album that many have been waiting for. It’s not even among the best they’ve ever recorded. But, some of these songs are absolute musts for any fan, so give it a listen. I can definitely see myself putting a few of these tracks on a mix tape.