Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review of Love at the Bottom of the Sea by The Magnetic Fields

Originally published at New Music Tuesdays

Way back before the turn of the millennium, music critic Robert Christgau reviewed an unusual and outsized album in his 1999 Consumer Guide to Music. “This cavalcade of witty ditties,” he wrote,”…upends my preconceptions the way high art's supposed to.” The album in question, 69 Love Songs, earned the highest marks in Christgau’s rating system, nudging The Magnetic Fields into the indie underground where they have been germinating for twelve plus years. “They” meaning “he”– for all things Magnetic Fields are singularly stamped as "Made by Stephin Merritt.” You can search high and low for additional writing credits on all ten MF albums, but you will not find a one.

Merritt, a frequent candidate for Curmudgeon of the Year who admits he hates touring and interviews, is the mastermind behind projects such as Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic ArchiesThe Sixths, as well as the soundtrack for Pieces of April and the off-Broadway version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. That he is so prolific is both a blessing and, in the case of Love at the Bottom of the Sea (out March 6 on Merge Records), a curse. The problem with being a seasoned songwriter who switches genre for sport is that you can turn out piles of songs that seem "finished" even when they are not very strong.

This new release features a return to the synthesized sound of early MF albums, but you may as well dial up “Take Ecstasy with Me”—off their 1993 album Holiday – and just play it on repeat. Every band deserves to have one surprisingly uneven album that makes them seem human. For the Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Seais it.

Like any good Merritt enthusiast, I waited with bated breath for the mailbox scrape-and-ding signaling the delivery from Merge Records. In the back of my mind, though, I knew from my Realism experience that the anticipation of a new Magnetic Fields album is sometimes the best part. Until Realism, which came out in 2010 and was dubbed a “jokey disaster” by one reviewer, Merritt had made musical gold out of his favorite topics: Christmas, lupine-human hybrids, the moon, trains, and being seventeen. Not to mention…love. These themes worked great in the early MF years and throughout 69 Love Songs, whose 2004 follow-up is the gift that keeps on giving.

In advance of the March 6 release, the NPR Music team – who wear their Stephin Merritt fetish on their digital sleeve—shared the video for “Andrew in Drag,” a single as disease-catchy as some of the best of69 Love Songs (“Absolutely Cuckoo” and “I Think I Need a New Heart,” among others).  As you watch the video (note: it's not safe for work), you may expect the Andrew character to suddenly morph into David Bowie. He doesn’t, but you do catch a glimpse of Merritt mulling over the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Although Merritt, whose ASCAP license is registered as “Gay and Loud,” once locked horns with Rufus Wainwright about the costs and benefits of aspiring musicians announcing their sexuality, 69 Love Songs served as something of a coming-out party for him lyrically, and in recent years he has not been one to hide his gay light under a bushel. He covers all bases in his lyrics, writing to men when it fits, to women, as women, in whatever configuration suits the narrative—a jilted Rockette in “The Night You Can’t Remember” from volume 3 of 69 Love Songs, and a chaste but raging dreamer in “The Nun’s Litany” on 2008’s Distortion.  In “Andrew in Drag,” Merritt channels an outing in progress, and it is hard not to love the loud, proud and unequivocal narrator proclaiming that, “I’ve always been a ladies’ man and I don’t have to brag, but I’ve become a mama’s boy for Andrew in Drag.” Easy on the ears, and a track that holds up upon repeated listenings, this is the gem for which Love at the Bottom of the Sea will be savored now and remembered later.

Your Girlfriend's Face” alerts the listener that this album is heavier on Shirley Simms' vocals than past works. Simms has been a steadfast companion (though never officially a member) of the group for years, and Merritt asserts she is one of the two best female vocalists of our time. (The other, curiously, he says is k.d. lang.) Since Simms is so talented, one has to wonder why she is autotuned throughout the new record. Similar aural frustration can be found on “Born for Love,” whose cloudy sound obscures Merritt’s already-fuzzy crooning, but would do better to bury weak phrasings and tired lines such as, “If you want me to leave, you just give me a shove. But you won’t because I was born for love.”  While elsewhere he excels at simple, romantic lyrics (“Nothing Matters When We're Dancing,” for instance, from volume 1 of 69 Love Songs), this simplicity can lead to laziness in his craft, as with the mess of clichés that takes up the mid-section of the new album. The simplex lines fare only slightly better on “I'd Go Anywhere with Hugh,” a nice tune, if forgettable, that reminds us that Merritt does not take himself too seriously.

The look at Magnetic Fields shows is one of bookish hipsters, but you will also find these folks outfitted in cowboy boots and clip-on multi-color hair feathers. This could represent fans’ communion with Merritt’s country & western alter ego, realized most fully on the 1993 album The Charm of the Highway Strip (which, along with 1995’s Get Lost, are this reviewer’s MF ‘desert island’ picks). The group has self-described as “orch-folk,” owing perhaps to the combination of Sam Davol’s cello, a host of strange instruments, and Merritt’s nomadic childhood. He speaks candidly about this in the 2010 documentaryStrange Powers, shedding some welcome light on the recurring rail themes in his early songs (“Born on a Train” and “Fear of Trains” are two great ones), and on his life in general.

It is in the spirit of The Charm of the Highway Strip that “Goin' Back to the Country,” the saving grace of Love at the Bottom of the Sea, takes flight. “Let Laramie take care of me 'til they bury me,” Stephin sings. And although he is seldom without his tongue in his cheek, one cannot help but remember the Matthew Shepard tragedy and juxtapose it to Merritt’s own journey. Jumping from honky-tonk irony to dreamy metaphor, we are then taken to “I've Run Away to Join the Fairies,” which is classic Magnetic Fields. Here, the heavy electronica seems to work for, rather than against, the rest of the arrangement. And for fans who haven't moved on from 69 Love Songs, this solid track could be number 70, were it more directly a love story.

Heaviness of sound, when handled delicately, can be one of the band’s strengths. (In an early scene in Strange Powers, Merritt asks guitarist John Woo if he can use a quarter, rather than a pick, as plectrum to get the bass just right on a particular recording. Woo suggests a dime; Merritt wins.) But the same weight can distract just as easily. With Claudia Gonson on vocals and low in her range, “My Husband's Pied-à-Terre” conjures Merritt and Gonson 's side project, Future Bible Heroes, but unpleasantly. And while it is somewhat akin to their Gothic Archies work—a soundtrack to the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events books—it collapses under its own dark girth.

A possible bright spot late in the album is “The Horrible Party,” a playful urban tirade reminiscent of the movie LA Story, accented with Merritt’s vocabularic flair. "Here in a darkness known hitherto only to moles, people are using the slang they picked up from the proles, everyone’s finding new uses for muffs and mink stoles, and ‘Anything Goes’ goes again—have they no other rolls?” is one of those verses that catapults MF superfans into the perennial debate about whether Merritt is ultimately liberated or handicapped by his relentless rhyming. Exhausting but vivid, this song chronicles Merritt's adjustment to the City of Angels. Now separated coast to coast since Merritt gave up his NYC home, and with Gonson raising a daughter on her own in Brooklyn – the band is charting new territory personally, as well as geographically. One hopes that the horrible party in question is not the Magnetic Fields themselves, especially as we arrive at the end of the song: “’Anything Goes’ is the motto and endless refrain. My dear, it was heaven until they ran out of champagne.”  

As a pre-order junkie, I appreciate the Love at the Bottom of the Seaposter, Merge Records sticker, and the new addition to my MagFields button collection, but the album is a disappointment. The good news is that this release coincides with the band’s first SXSW appearance, which will no doubt result in greater visibility for Stephin and his many talents.

Little matter that I wanted at times to throw this CD to the bottom of the sea while listening to it. In a career as storied as Merritt's, one record disintegrating on the ocean floor is inconsequential.  He is a great American songwriter and that cannot be undone in the space of fifteen tracks.

Come for:  “Andrew in Drag”
Stay for:  “Goin' Back to the Country”
You'll be surprised by: “I've Run Away to Join the Fairies”

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