I’ve been fleeing from Stephin Merritt for years, almost eight in fact. Ever since I interviewed him in 2004 - sitting on a bench in the middle of a tree-lined sidewalk in Barcelona - and found his misanthropy frightening. “Up, Up with People”, as one of my elementary school teachers used to say. That poorly-scheduled encounter made it hard for me to get into his albums, as if after meeting the person who had written them, I didn’t know whether to approach them with affection, distance, misgivings, or excitement. Every time I heard The Magnetic Fields, particularly everything after “69 Love Songs”, an angel and a devil would be arguing on my shoulders. The scales ended up tipping towards the latter - partly due to the fact that since that triple somersault anthology, Merritt is yet to write anything as sublime (I have to admit, even though it’s hard). I’ve played his later works several times, but always with a sad, pitying smile on my face. “i” (2004) and even “Distortion” (2008) still had something to them, but the memory of “Realism” (2010) disappeared in one swift stroke as soon as it was over. It was, without a doubt, an abysmal pit in Stephin’s career.
After this slip-up, how should one receive “Love At The Bottom Of The Sea”? Would it return to me the love of my youth? I threw myself into the first listening with a bit of enthusiasm, revved up by the promotional hook of the celebrated return to Merge. Yet, almost immediately I resigned myself to considering it all said and done, ready to reaffirm what I already knew: today’s Magnetic Fields, unfortunately, are only a shadow of what they once were. Yes, they sound playful here again - as in years gone by, more lo-fi if you want, and deliberately camp - as if everything were all just some great big joke (that stuffed animal on the cover, so stuffed that it doesn’t even fit into the frame); but there is still the feeling that they have forgotten to give the songs emotional depth. However, after further listening, the works on this tenth album are starting to get better. Little by little, some favourites start to appear. “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh”, “The Machine In Your Hand” (“I don’t know why I love you, you’re not really a person”) or the influences of The Human League in “Infatuation”, sound fabulous. Even “Your Girlfriend’s Face” and “Andrew In Drag”, minor songs for Magnetic, turn out to be adorable.
Everything happens very fast in “Love At The Bottom Of The Sea”. This time there are two thematic excuses. On the one hand, the rule of making an album of short songs (15 in 34 minutes) to confront those current pop albums that Stephin says he finds so long and boring. On the other - after the trilogy without keyboards - there is the decision not to use guitars and to give space only to synthesizers and other electronic gadgets, thus creating a sort of scrapyard in the background that presses the speed and sonically mistreats the melodies. There are songs that are deliberately irritating and others like “I’ve Run Away To Join The Fairies” and “The Horrible Party” that sound almost drunk. In general it is clear that there may have been an error in judgement: have they really fallen again into a production that is as manic as that of “Distortion”? Nevertheless, we should recognise that the affect achieved fits our man’s biting, introspective humour like a glove. Stephin has managed to polish his bitterness to the utmost. He continues to compose while sitting alone at the bar and watching the youngsters disco dance. He claims that what really inspires him now, more than his muses, is boredom.
The overall balance ends up paying off in the group’s favour. Being benevolent, we’ll say that they have saved their skin again, and that is no mean feat. The first part of the album clearly wins out in quality, and as time passes, the author’s habitual quirks kick in: the usual country joke (“Goin’ Back To The Country”), another one about mariachis (“All She Cares About Is Mariachi”), the occasional psych-pop scare (“My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre” or religion as terror in “God Wants Us To Wait”), some nods to girl-groups and dark-wave, Claudia Gonson wondering who is going to pay the rent in “Quick!”, etc. The album’s biggest endorsement is Merritt’s ability to write (yet again) about his usual clichés without being embarrassed by it, squeezing the subject of love within his particular circumstances. Whether it’s “born to love” or being “the only boy in the city”, Stephin doesn’t mind repeating himself. In the end, his entire career has consisted of this, recycling clichés and making sure that the metaphors still work. We give it a passing grade.