Those who’ve poured hours, stoned or unstoned, into watching Blue Planet, “NOVA,” or anything of that ilk are likely well-acquainted with the opinion that the bottom of the sea is Earth’s last unexplored frontier. The creatures that inhabit these regions live by their own rules and develop compensations and coping mechanisms in order to exist in a place without light, little oxygen, and extreme atmospheric pressure. It’s an unlikely place to survive – much less thrive – but if anyone’s qualified to name an album Love at the Bottom of the Sea and use it as a conceit to discuss life and love that succeed in bizarre, inhospitable places, it’s Stephin Merritt. Consider him the dour anglerfish of subphotic love, luring his prey close to rhyme them into submission.
No one’s better than Merritt at taking a theme and exploring it from every conceivable angle – and on the Magnetic Fields’ past two albums, the thematic thread has been musical (Distortion’s pop shoegaze à la Jesus and Mary Chain, Realism’s folk) instead of lyrical, while past albums have delved into road songs (The Charm of the Highway Strip), solipsism (i), and of course, love (69 Love Songs). Sea is a musical and lyrical return to form for Merritt, who’s mobilized his team of go-to resources (Claudia Gonson, John Woo, etc.) for a collection of songs that delves into the weird minutiae of an off-kilter relationship or situation – a party gone afoul on “The Horrible Party,” “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre” (“where more women stay/ than the YWCA”), and poppin’ out country kids named Leanne and Leroy on “Goin’ Back to the Country.”
Those pining for 69 Love Songs’ Casio rinky-dinkery and wordplay won’t be disappointed. Musically and lyrically, Sea is akin to what Merritt was sporting when most of us originally fell in love with the Magnetic Fields: cheap synths, homespun vocals, linguistic acrobatics. Regarding the latter, “All She Cares About Is Mariachi” features some real gems, including “You want to light your flame in her hibachi/ Well brother, I can tell you in advance/ That all she cares about is mariachi/ And all she ever wants to do is dance.” And thank god Merritt used “The Machine In Your Hands” to finally weigh in on a subject tailor-made for his brand of obsessive eccentricity: pining for the same depth of love we have for our smartphones. Would that each one of us was someone’s Android.
No Magnetic Fields album is 100% listenable all the way through; even magnum opus 69 Love Songs has a lot of “I Shatter”s scattered amongst “The Book of Love”s. True to form, Sea has a handful of instant classics, punctuated by tunes like “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” that seem little more than word-association training exercises for the GRE. However, standouts “Andrew In Drag” and “Your Girlfriend’s Face” are among the best in Merritt’s massive canon. The latter is a Gonson-sung synth pop number, likely the catchiest song you’ll hear about hiring a contract killer to bury your ex-beau’s new girlfriends alive on crystal meth. “Andrew In Drag” is the best song on the album, a ditty sung from the point of view of a straight man pining for another straight man who happened to be dressed in drag as a one-time joke. You can hear Rick Santorum’s neural pathways short-circuit from here.
Most of Sea is about medial situations, the time and thoughts immediately after you’ve made a decision but before you pull yourself up and take action. It’s a fitting theme for the Fields’ current situation. The band is well-established, and though they don’t coast on their legacy, there’s a clear formula to Merritt’s songwriting, whether or not the songs happen to include synthesizers. Formulas churn out reliable, consistent results, but “reliable and consistent” art doesn’t always inspire a passionate response. So although it’s great to hear a Magnetic Fields album that’s reminiscent of the band’s halcyon days, I’m hoping Merritt will use Sea as a springboard to channel his odd genius in more surprising ways next time he takes a deep-dive into love and associated matters.