In Review: The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea

Hearing that a new Magnetic Fields album is coming out always gives me mixed feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan. But their previous two albums, while plenty ambitious, were a bit disappointing. The sound on Distortion, the band’s sonic tribute to The Jesus and Mary Chain, was just plain unpleasant, and the follow-up, Realism, wasn’t very compelling lyrically. It’s been a while since Stephin Merritt and crew put out an album that lived up to the greatness I know they’re capable of.

Fortunately, “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” is an album worth getting excited for. After a few years of experimentation, the Fields have regained their patented balance of sonic distortion and lyrical pop perfection, while upping the ante just a little bit. This is the Magnetic Fields of Holiday and Charm of the Highway Strip, but with added dashes of Kraftwerk and Gary Numan. It’s a mix that doesn’t always work, but more often than not, Merritt and his band mates are at the top of their game, and what they produce is both comfortingly familiar and thrillingly creative.

None of the songs on this album are longer than two and a half minutes. The album’s best songs make good use of small space. They come in, make their mark, and leave before they’ve overstayed their welcome. But the weaker points of the album, the ones that head more towards Distortion territory, can make two minutes and thirty seconds feel like an eternity. These songs, like “Born for Love” and “Goin’ Back to the Country,” are the ones where the vocals and the wall of noise in the background are battling for supremacy, and it gets irritating.

But “Love” is blissfully short on those moments. Most of the songs, like “God Wants us to Wait,” “Andrew in Drag” and “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” are little nuggets of great pop music that are just long enough to satisfy without losing their charm. And, of course, Merritt’s lyrics are as clever as they’ve ever been. “The Machine in Your Hand,” for example, is a love song for the smartphone generation, with lines like “you’re not really a person, more a gadget with meat stuck to it.”

It’s been a few years since the Magnetic Fields have been this good, and I think with Love at the Bottom of the Sea, it’s become clear that their last two less-than-awesome releases were really just steps on their journey to find a new direction for the band. They played with one extreme on Distortion, and went back to the other on Realism, then took what they’d learned from both to create this latest release. Love at the Bottom of the Sea is everything that’s always worked about the band, plus a few things they’re still playing with. It’s nice to see that after a 20-year-plus career, the Magnetic Fields are still a band worth getting excited over.

– by Guest-contributor Abby Olcese
(Abby also blogs about movies over at No More Popcorn and contributes to NPR)

You can sample and purchase Love at the Bottom of the Sea over at Merge Records. (It’s the band’s first release for the label since their groundbreaking 69 Love Songs)