Personally, The Magnetic Fields is one of those bands that I can’t explain to people, let alone explain to myself. For almost two decades Stephin Merritt has used the group as his primary outlet for songwriting, but the last couple of years he’s definitely led the group in varying directions, with various effects. For all intents and purposes, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a great return to form, demonstrating the prowess of Merritt and his band of merrymakers.
“Andrew in Drag” is the second song on the record, but it’s so phenomenal it’s hard not to start with such a track. The sound’s definitely on the more playful side of things, at least with the accompanying instrumentation, but Merritt’s soaring voice will win you over. His gifts as a poet, oddball that he may be, shine through here. “Your Girlfriend’s Face” has the same childish tone in the lyrical matter, which harkens back to the days of 69 Love Songs in its accessibility and clarity. Electronic flourishes seem to be the sound du jour on this outing, rather than the more distortion-based tracks we found on the last two efforts.
“I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” is a great track, featuring vocalist Claudia Gonson, but what really sticks out is its remarkable similarity to Bob Dylan‘s “You Belong to Me.” I’ve played this song so many times tonight that I’m not sure if I love it for its similarities or on its own merit; regardless, you’ll find this song playing in your mind for days to come. What does stand out when listening to this song is the vocal presence of Gonson throughout Love at the Bottom of the Sea, though I’ve always found myself gravitating more towards the Merritt led tracks. She’s got a certain light-heartedness in her tone that makes it easy to find that union between music and voice; the band’s usage of electronics definitely fits Gonson here.
But, with Gonson taking a more prominent role here, Merritt seems oddly missing for parts. Of course, “I Don’t Like Your Tone” finds Merritt gently wooing the audience, using the deepness of his voice to draw you into the song. However, when he comes in on “All She Cares About is Mariachi” it sort of seems like a one-tone approach that he’s used on this Magnetic Fields effort, minus the outstanding “Andrew in Drag.” I guess I miss the man on the oft-overlooked i.
For all intents and purposes, there are some great songs here on Love at the Bottom of the Sea–one that’s probably goes down as a top in the band’s long cannon. However, the songs by and large just don’t stand out the way you expect from a Merritt penned tune. You’ll find the juvenile playfulness and short songs, but for once, theses tracks don’t demand your attention and adoration; they sleek by as cute and enjoyable, yet not wholly remarkable. I’ll still stand by this as a good record, just not my favorite from The Magnetic Fields.