Sunday, June 2, 2013

Love at the Bottom of the Sea - The Magnetic Fields

Love at the Bottom of the Sea
The Magnetic Fields
Merge MRG439

I had tickets to see the Magnetic Fields show at the Orpheum in support of this album last year.  At the last minute my wife stood me up, so I took my son instead.  I had some trepidation about this, his taste runs more toward Incubus and Linkin Park but he was willing to go (I think he liked the band's name) even though he'd never heard them.  I expected some configuration of the band like on the album with electric instruments, synthesizers and percussion.  Instead it was an unplugged show driven by piano, cello, acoustic guitar and harmonium.  I figured my kid would hate it, but to my relief he liked it quite a bit.  There is just no denying the immense pop craft Stephin Merritt brings to his music.  He appeals to me, he appeals to my teenage son and he'd probably appeal to my mom.  His lyrics are clever and charming, loaded with originality, insight and word play, his tunes are full of hooks and strong melodies.  I adore him and all his records, he is one of my favorite artists and I had a great time at the show.  This is the tenth full length album from the Magnetic Fields and it is typically excellent.  The band shows no sign of decline or staleness.  It opens with "God Wants Us To Wait" which is about a girl who wants to put off intercourse because of her religious convictions.  I love the line "you might like to kiss the dew on my hem" which surely must be a reference to Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy."  It manages to be erotic and humorous simultaneously.  The song has an 80s synth pop feel to it with heavy reverb and a mechanical vocal from Claudia Gonson that perhaps symbolizes the robotic nature of fundamentalists.  "Andrew in Drag" is classic Merritt and my favorite song on the album.  It is about a rich, straight kid who falls hopelessly in love with his straight friend Andrew after seeing him in drag on stage.  It is a poppy song effectively crooned by Merritt in his low key baritone voice.  "Your Girlfriend's Face" is about a spurned lover who hires a hit man to mutilate her rival's face and kill her ex-boyfriend.  It is another synth heavy song with the light, bouncy tune providing an ironic counterpoint to the dark, nasty lyrics that are sweetly sung by Shirley Simms.  "Born For Love" is a seduction song.  It is a slow, wheezy song with a lugubrious vocal from Merritt.  Poppiness returns for the bouncy "I'd Go Anywhere with Hugh" which is about an unrequited love triangle, the singer loves Hugh who loves the person who loves the singer but none of the loves are reciprocated.  Since the singer is a woman, it makes for some complicated gender issues in the triangle.  "Infatuation (With Your Gyration)" describes how Merritt likes watching his lover dance.  It sounds very 80s synth pop with an appropriately dance oriented rhythm track and an ensemble vocal on the chorus.  In "The Only Boy in Town" the singer wishes that there were no other boys around to tempt her to be unfaithful to her lover.  Who else but Merritt would rhyme "nonce" with "France", heck who besides him would even use a word like "nonce" in a pop song?  The lyrics are humorous but the music is plaintive and lovely, suitable for a romantic teen ballad.  In "The Machine in Your Hand" Merritt wishes he was his lover's cell phone so he'd be closer to that person.  It is more synth pop with a punchy beat.  Side two opens with "Goin' Back to the Country" which is about a gal who's fed up with the city and wants to live the simple country life.  The song mixes country music and synth pop with predictably awkward results.  You'd never expect Merritt to wander into Incredible String Band territory but In "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies" he sings of leaving the mortal world because of an unhappy love affair to enter the magical world of fairies even though they mock him just as his former lover did.  If you think "fairies" is a double entendre here, you are more cynical than me although you may very well be right.  With a noisy synth pop backing track and a sincere vocal from Merritt it is a surprisingly effective song.  Gonson sings "The Horrible Party" which is about a rich girl who is desperate to leave a decadent party where people are taking drugs, having sex and "using the slang they picked up from the proles."  It is a rollicking waltz with another cacophonous backing track.  Gonson also sings the venemous "My Husband's Pied-a-Terre" which describes a love nest where "a minx gets minks to wear" from the singer's very unfaithful husband.  Outside of France what other rock songwriter would rhyme "derriere" with "pied-a-terre"?  It starts out slow and gloomy driven by mournful cello lines and then shifts gears as the synth pop kicks in for an upbeat finale.  In "I Don't Like Your Tone" Merritt sings that he likes the words his lover says, but not the tone in which they are delivered.  It is a slow synth laden tune which Merritt croons with relish.  In "Quick!" Simms advises her lover to think of something to make her stay because she is ready to walk out on their relationship because she is tired of being attacked which inspires the classic Merritt couplet "between your outrageous remarks, like the mating calls of sarcastic sharks."  It is has a terrific hook and has lots of pop appeal.  This is my other favorite song on the album.  The album concludes with "All She Cares About is Mariachi" which seems to be written just so Merritt can come up with rhymes for "mariachi" including "hibachi," "Liberace" and "Saatchi & Saatchi."  It is a very slight but funny song about a girl who'd rather dance than make love.  It has a dolorous vocal from Merritt backed up by choppy synth pop with a slight Latin flavor.  Just your typical Magnetic Fields record.  People sometimes complain about Merritt repeating himself, but I prefer to think of it as consistency and besides no one else makes records like this.  The guy is a true original with his own instantly recognizable style.  I admire that.  Merritt is also criticized for the impersonal nature of his music.  I can relate to this, most of the artists I most admire write deeply personal music like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon or Neil Young to name a few.  Slick impersonal music usually bores me.  Merritt is so gifted, so entertaining that I don't have a problem with him.  The guy is a great storyteller, his songs are so original and charming that they win me over despite their lack of depth.  Aside from Sir Paul McCartney I can't think of another rock songwriter who has such a knack for knocking out silly love songs and what's wrong with that?  Recommended to New Order fans who dig Cole Porter.

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