In 1999 The Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs, a triple album that did just what it said on the packet. What was remarkable about this album, aside from its scope, was the witty songwriting, genre hopping and clever use of synths. Over 10 years after its release it is still considered a classic and has the magical ability to make indie fans froth at the mouth.
In the time since 69 Love Songs and Love at the Bottom of the Sea the Magnetic Fields set themselves new sonic challenges. All of the titles on I began with that letter and Distortion and Realism saw the band explore lo-fi scuzz and acoustic instruments respectively. While they were all interesting listens, even just for what they said about pop music, they we more miss than hit.
Love at the Bottom of the Sea was billed as a return to form. More synths, a return to Merge records and for the first time in over a decade, no concept tying the songs together. Unfortunately the result is less than triumphant.
For a thirty minute album, it sure feels long. The synths may be back, but they’re applied so liberally that the result is a muddy, confusing mess that ruins perfectly good melodies. It’s hard to resist the urge to rip out your headphones in frustration.
There are signs of what this album could have been. Andrew In Drag is three minutes of pure pop perfection, with lyrics detailing unrequited love for a drag queen who did it as a joke. With cleaner production and a singalong chorus it could easily qualify for love song number 70.
Your Girlfriend’s Face is delightfully vengeful and is reminiscent of Carlifornia Girls from 2008’s distortion. Quick is the most sincere sounding song on the album and features a line about the mating calls of sarcastic sharks, which is everything you could ever want from a Magnetic Fields track.
But on the other hand, you have tracks like I’d go Anywhere With Hugh which tires the moment you get the joke (and chances are you just did) and All She Cares About Is Marachi, a ponderous ode to terrible rhyming. Infatuation (With Your Gyration) sounds like a Depeche Mode parody songs while Machine in Your Hand is about a smartphone. You read that right.
While Magnetic Fields albums are always a mix of throwaway joke tracks and emotional songs that are worthy of more listens, previous albums have had a balance of the two. I wish I could say the same for Love at the Bottom of the Sea. If you’re a fan, the few decent songs are worth a listen or five. But in reality, it’s probably best to put 69 Love Songs on instead.