Stephin Merritt always has a sense of irony and careful planning behind his releases. Whether it is the grimy lo-fi sound of Distortion or the cleverly folky presentation of Realism, the pop commentary is always present. Love at the Bottom Sea features a great delay of pithy dialogue, and while the album itself is a bit more listener friendly than many of his earlier works, it is not a breakthrough.
It seems as though a healthy cynical view on one’s industry has the ability to produce gold more often than not, but surprisingly enough the message of the album kind of gets lost within itself. There are certainly tracks that stand far out above the rest “Your Girlfriend’s Face” and “Andrew in Drag” are the most obvious examples, and these few songs alone are enough to make this a good album, the rapier wit of Merritt is not quite captured. The bouncy organic music contained within the incredibly short tracks gives listeners an idea of the folk-pop feel that the Magnetic Fields are looking to present. “I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh”, for example, speaks to the 3 minute Beatles pop song formula and really presents the theme of Love at the Bottom of the Sea and gives a glimpse into the specific point Merritt is speaking to.
I think I get, and I think other people will get it, but the result is more commentary than actual substance. The mid-tempo waltz tempo drags by at times and by mid album it becomes incredibly predictable. For some, this may be a stepping stone into investigating some of the band’s earlier (and better works) as they have created a much more universally palatable sound. Merritt uses his range to its full extent, the lyrics are finely crafted, and the anti-pop message is a very relatable and good one. These elements lend me to believe that the band is contemplating a more middling direction and this is a precursor to their future sound.
As a musician there is no denying that Merritt has ability and truly understands his art, and the personal nature of the message results in actual music that is often hit or miss. Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a consistent does of hit or miss, mostly miss (although “Quick” is a big hit near the end of the album). Die hard Magnetic Fields fans should pick up the album simply to hear what Merritt has to say, his next criticism of the music industry, but shouldn’t expect a large amount of 69 Love Songs quality tracks.