Few indie rock records of the past 20 years (or even longer) match The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs in terms of sheer imagination, ambition and duration. But when viewed as part of The Magnetic Fields’ catalog as a whole, it’s just one of a long list of conceptually bound art pop pieces that blend a cohesive theme with stunning feats of melody. Stephin Merritt & Co. addressed tales of travel and life on the road on 1994’s The Charm of the Highway Strip, plugged in their loudest overdrive pedals on Distortion, and stripped down to their simplest, most drab sensibilities on 2010’s Realism. And even those albums that don’t revolve around any specific concept, per se, maintained a thematic cohesion, such as on 2004’s i, ostensibly a Merritt solo album, featuring only his vocals and bearing only song titles that began with the letter “i”.
The Mag Fields’ commitment to connective threads is impressive, to say the least, so much that up until now, with Love at the Bottom of the Sea, finding an album of theirs that simply comprised a set of unrelated songs that sounded great together required reaching all the way back to 1995’s Get Lost. And, to be honest, I’m not even sure that’s true. But the band’s latest, interestingly enough, is the most straightforward pop album they’ve released in some time, sticking strictly to the high-energy synth-pop sound they perfected on 1994’s Holiday, and boasting no song longer than three minutes long. While it’s disingenuous to state that any permutation of The Magnetic Fields is quintessential, here they come pretty close to the classic ideal of the band in its earliest incarnation.
Despite the absence of any particular concept on Love at the Bottom of the Sea, its 15 songs comprise a tight and fluid whole, with bright and flashy keyboard sounds playing a toy gadget backdrop for alternating vocal tracks by Merritt and Claudia Gonson. In typical fashion, essentially all of the songs deal in some part with relationships, from love to lust, heartbreak to revenge fantasies. Gonson riffs on the absurdity of religion-based abstinence on “God Wants Us to Wait” and takes out a hit on an ex-lover on “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” while Merritt eroticizes smartphones on “The Machine In Your Hands” and directly addresses physical attraction in “Infatuation (with Your Gyration).” Were the band to call this album 15 Love Songs, it might not have been the most original idea, marketing-wise, but it also wouldn’t have been wrong.
That none of these songs ever extends beyond a scant couple of minutes means they never reach the point of wearing out their welcome, though more than a few are so neatly wrapped and pleasure-inducing as to demand a minute or two extra. “God Wants Us to Wait,” pulsing with post-punk abrasion and wicked humor, is an immediate highlight, opening the album only to segue into the equally wonderful first single, “Andrew In Drag,” with its unshakeable melody and massive eruption of a chorus. And “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” is the kind of ’80s-style synth-pop glory that Merritt hasn’t conjured up in quite a few years, and is certainly a welcome return.
As interesting as it may have been in the past few years to hear the Magnetic Fields try out some aesthetic experiments via noise and its complete absence, it’s nice to hear them neither overcomplicating things on Love at the Bottom of the Sea, nor oversimplifying either. Stephin Merritt has taken great care in proving that he’s one of the best contemporary pop songwriters, no matter what the venue, ensemble or production technique. Whether he’s bored of these ever changing variables or just feeling nostalgic might have something to do with this latest direction, but the why hardly matters when the what is so satisfying.
The Magnetic Fields – Holiday
Future Bible Heroes – Memories of Love
Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.