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

[Merge; 2012]

Question: what was that one movie where the teenage girl meets a dashingly handsome man of a different, otherworldly species, falls head over heels in love, and then permanently changes her species so that she can be with him? No, not Twilight. Oh, yeah, The Little Mermaid. I would really like that movie, if not for the absolutely vapid song “Under The Sea,” where the lazy and slightly racist Jamaican stereotype Sebastian encourages a lifestyle unconcerned with change, and furthermore utterly misrepresents the true facts of the lives of aquatic creatures. “Life is sweet here”? Hardly. We can even look to Marlin from Finding Nemo for a more accurate portrait of how horrible life is down there. Who in their right mind would want to live in constant fear of being devoured by a larger fish, or getting caught in a fisherman’s net? Not I, said the music blogger.

The comedian Mitch Hedberg once noted that “if fish could scream, the ocean would be loud as shit. Nothing but fish going ‘Aw, fuck, I thought I looked like that rock.’” Under the sea there is no certainty that anything can last, or that anything is attainable, and at the bottom of the sea is where it’s worst. It’s pitch dark and the pressure is unbearable. No one could know where they’re going or whether anyone is near. It’s littered with wrecked ships and dead sailors; relics of bygone successes. It makes sense, then, that The Magnetic Fields would title their latest record Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Where 69 Love Songs’ contents are obvious (69 songs about love, in case you were wondering,) Love at the Bottom of the Sea contains “anti-love” songs. The record is 15 short vignettes about lost, unattainable, suboptimal, or just plain impossible love, and The Fields nail each and every one.

Even before its release, the most exciting feature of this record is The Fields’ return to synth arrangements. After their excellent but underwhelming “no-synth” trilogy (2004’s i, 2008’s Distortion and 2010’s Realism), it’s a refreshing dose of nostalgia to hear the first sweeping notes that open the first track “God Wants Us To Wait.” The synths are not just a triumphant return to form, but a reinvention of it. Regarding the instrumentation, Merritt noted that “Most of the synthesizers on the record didn’t exist when we were last using synthesizers.” In this way, The Fields’ thirteen-year synthesizer drought served to set us up for the immaculate arrangements found on Love at the Bottom of the Sea. There’s the glitchy ticking-clock motif that punctuates the mistreated wife’s ultimatum “Quick!” There’s the jaunty and jazzy juxtaposition of a joyful brass band underscoring a jilted lover’s plans for revenge on “Your Girlfriend’s Face.” There’s the chorus of “Infatuation (With Your Gyration),” whose dancehall-number chant is complemented by distinctly un-dancehall-number ukulele strumming. There’s the mariachi number “All She Cares About is Mariachi,” and the country-western number “Goin’ Back to the Country.” It’s this sort of musical variety and experimentation that sets it far ahead from Distortion and Realism, which were tied together around a specific musical theme rather than a lyrical one.

And, speaking of lyrics, it is a noted phenomenon that writers find it easier to write under particular constraints, and by constraining himself to themes of love gone wrong, Stephin Merritt has written one of the most achingly funny yet affecting lyric sheets that has ever accompanied a Magnetic Fields album. On “God Wants Us to Wait,” Shirley Simms, tongue firmly in cheek, explains to her partner the necessity of celibacy until their marriage. Stephin Merritt’s signature sarcasm seeps from every syllable. “Despite my beauty and the scent of jasmine,” Simms sings, “could you be happy with the knowledge of sin?” The jab at Catholicism in particular is clear, and it’s not the first time Merritt has used this tactic, as he had Simms (herself a Catholic) sing the sexual liberation anthem “The Nun’s Litany” on Distortion.

On such songs as “Born for Love,” “The Horrible Party,” and “My Husband’s Pied-a-terre,” Merritt inserts striking lyrical turns: “Hey, little cutie, I was born for love” goes “Born For Love,” until Merritt’s melancholic admission that “I won’t mind if you just take me home.” Similarly, the final lines of the other two aforementioned tracks contain Shyamalanian twists that reveal the narrator’s true colors and force us to re-examine their motivations. So poignant, in fact, are these endings, that I would be loath to spoil them here. This is lyricism you just need to hear for yourself.

Other lyrical mastery that is not unusual for Merritt are his exercises in clever rhymes. On album highlight “The Only Boy in Town,” “France” is rhymed with “Séance” and “Provenance.” On “All She Cares About is Mariachi,” Merritt comes up with as many rhymes as he can for “Mariachi,” (Hibachi, Liberace, etc.) “My Husband’s Pied-a-terre” is a similarly clever rhyming exercise, and a well-enunciated line in “I Don’t Like Your Tone” goes “What’s with all this purring / Are you a cat? / Why are we whispering / love’s not like that.” Clever rhymes like these have been a dime a dozen on the no-synth trilogy, so Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a goldmine by comparison.

Finally, there’s the album’s overarching theme to address. Given Stephin Merritt’s knack for melancholy, it comes as a surprise that the Fields haven’t yet dedicated an album to themes of lost, failed, or unattainable love. The bottom of the sea, with its darkness and deadly pressure, is an apt metaphor for the narrator’s attraction to “Andrew in Drag,” who is “The only girl I’ll ever love,” even though “I’ll never see that girl again / he did it as a gag.” It aptly describes the love triangle of “I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh,” where “I love Hugh, and Hugh loves you, you love me, but he does not.” It aptly describes the wistful thinking of “Goin’ Back to the Country,” whose narrator has a complete plan for how she’ll leave the city, down to what she’ll name her children.

What also permeates Love at the Bottom of the Sea is the idea of the unattainability of perfection. In my review for Lambchop’s Mr. M, I noted the necessity of reexamination and reevaluation in the evolution of a band’s unique sound. Every decent band’s career has been defined by this process, which would not be necessary if a band has perfected its sound. While there are those (myself among them) who would like to claim that The Fields do indeed have a perfect sound, we must realize that Merritt can’t possibly conceive of it that way. After all, there’s still a massive amount of potential for new synthesizers that The Fields could not possibly have covered in the swift 33 minutes of Love at the Bottom of the Sea. To stay in one place is to give up, for the one who assumes perfection stays where they are without budging and becomes stagnant, monotonous, and boring. Just look at Norah Jones, or the Kooks, or Skrillex. This monotony is the kind that is encouraged by that dreadful piece of shit “Under the Sea,” which is entirely about why Ariel should be satisfied with what she has now, and not yearn for change. Perfection may be unattainable, but like the love in Love at the Bottom of the Sea, it sure as hell doesn’t mean we should stop striving for it.