4:28 pm Mar. 7, 2012
Love at the Bottom of the Sea reaches back a ways, stylistically, at points sounding like something the band might have produced before their magnum opus, 69 Love Songs. Although it is a willfully synth pop collection like their 1995 album Get Lost, the tinny production and hesitant vocals of that era are thankfully long gone, and although the band is back to the flat world of digital sounds, it is still one given depth and space in the hands of the band's longtime audio engineer Charles Newman. It is something of a pop progress report, and it passes with high marks. At any rate, gone are the textures of the past three acoustic albums, while Stephin Merritt's steady perfection of the pop song in all its quirks continues apace.
The album is also not the return to the '90s taken by so many indie bands in the past few years, to lo-fi and no-fi; the Magnetic Fields—the words of morose baritone Stephin Merritt made flesh with Claudia Gonson, cellist Sam Davol, strummer John Woo, and, this time, guest vocalist Shirley Simms—have always written songs that were forward-leaning, sounding more like the decade to come than the one just passed, and they've never taken cues from the world of indie rock.
Yet since their signing with indie label Merge Records, the band has been enmeshed in and adored by a scene that Merritt actively hates. His best things are clearly done in spite. He's playing at South by Southwest next week, which he most certainly will hate very much.
Perhaps part of the retracing comes from the band having lived through a 2010 documentary about themselves, Strange Powers, or the retrospective book about their label Merge, Our Noise (2009). It's certainly a band that sounds more aware of itself and its history than ever. That these songs are so chirping and immediate only makes the depth of Merritt's language games and the snark of his characters all the more dark.
Witness “God Wants Us to Wait,” a minimal, new wave dance floor number sung by Shirley Simms as a promise ring wearer's plea for purity in the face of temptation. Like a Depeche Mode for the abstinent set. Santorum would be pleased, though of course the chastity bit is highly ironized. Simms also sings the album's opening couplet “So I've taken a contract on you/ I have hired a hit man to do what they do” on “Your Girlfriend's Face,” so perhaps Merritt's characters have more of the moral (and business-minded) core of Romney. Which makes for better pop songs, generally.
There's a lot of slippage on the album's first pop hit, “Andrew In Drag," a lover's lament about a straight guy who falls for a friend who tried on a pair of heels, though alas, only on a whim. One of Merritt's Tin Pan tricks is to couch his melancholy in the sunniest of melodies, and this indeed is a tragic tale of queer longing unfulfilled among upbeat drum machines, cheery synth plucks, and happy brass. Merritt's voice cracks and melts on the chorus, with each “in,” blending to the synth horns like a power ballad guitar solo.
In the video for the song, New York burlesque dancers Stormy Leather and Pixie Harlot Darrell Thorne are shown in the process of uncovering, then becoming. The quick cuts making it hard to tell which body “belongs” to which gender, which makes it possible to see this as a song in which gay, straight, trans, or unidentifiable, the only certain things are desire and heartbreak.
The fact that “it's hard to tell,” who is who or what is what and that it isn't the central drama of the song all give this song (and video) its power, as part of the emerging field of queer pop that doesn't explain or excuse itself, but looks through to what we all experience, what lived life is about. Call your boyfriend, indeed! He may meet you on the dance floor for a little Magnetic Fields, and this can be an album for both ragers and couples.
The album bops along at a brisk pace, taking only a few moments to breathe outside the disco. “All She Cares About is Mariachi” is one of those genre songs Merritt seems to give himself as an assignment, just another one to tick of his lifelong list of sounds and styles to try before he dies. Where these songs used to betray themselves with their hasty production, this one has a tenderness and depth of study that makes even its simple premise, all she wants to do is dance, feel like a loved, thought out thing. As New Yorkers we must be sad that Merritt left us for his bungalow in Los Angeles, but a song like this shows us why the sun has done him good. His fake is a lot more real these days, his characters more finely drawn, his sounds all as they should be. No surprises but they're better.
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