The Magnetic Fields have carved out a niche in the indie world by constistently creating witty pop songs with infectious melodies. So it is disappointing that the melodies in the band’s newest release, “Love at the Bottom of the Sea,” are sorely lacking in lyrical ingenuity and musical complexity. Many of the melodies actually detract from the album’s few redeeming components. Though some of the instrumental arrangements are intriguing, the melodies are more representative of the quality of the album in general; “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” suffers from the same simple-mindedness and stagnancy as its underwhelming lyrics.
“Love at the Bottom of the Sea” is a collection of 15 two-minute-and-change snippets that never quite develop into full songs. Now and again, the album shows glimpse of the effortless whimsicality that has characterized the band’s career: “I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh” prances gaily for the entirety of its short life. The bass bounces from note to note while guitars playfully riff on various looping melodies. “I love Hugh and Hugh loves you / You love me, and he does not / I don’t love you and you don’t love Hugh / What a sad gavotte,” vocalist Shirley Simms sings, describing the love triangle in which she is caught. This is one of the few songs on the album in which the Magnetic Fields effectively uses light instrumentation to complement its light vocals to humorous effect.
While the album has other fleeting moments of bouyant simplicity, it cannot recover from lack of depth. “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” contains neither lyrical nor musical complexity. Though repetition and restraint can sometimes serve as assets, they lead in this case to a monotonous album. Most obviously damaging is the lack of thematic movement. The acclaimed and groundbreaking “69 Love Songs” possessed a distinct ebb and flow, and the common themes that ran throughout made it cohesive. In contrast, “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” is little more than a choppy collection of songs that don’t relate beyond a vague theme of homosexuality.
The songs themselves suffer the same fate. Even the catchier ones, like “Andrew in Drag,” draw strength from Stephin Merritt’s humorous lyrics but are limited by their lack of internal growth. ”Andrew in Drag” bumbles through lines like “The moment he walked on the stage, my tail began to wag / Wag like a little wiener dog for Andrew in drag,” only to be followed by series of similar jokes delivered in the same style and phrasing. This repetitiveness makes even these short two-minute songs feel tedious by their end.
The vocals are so choppy and repetitive that they ruin whatever fun exists in the instrumentation. Dull lines like “Let Laramie / take care o’ me / till they bury me” predominate. While earlier lyrics were full of intricate wordplay and ambitious poetic storytelling—“Home was anywhere with diesel gas / Love was a trucker’s hand,” Merritt sang in 1999’s “Papa Was a Rodeo,”—these new lyrics are comparatively trite and lazy.
“Love at the Bottom of the Sea” reaches a high point on “Horrible Party.” The song paints a picture of a wonderfully absurd night and is complete with whirling instrumentation and a swaggering, circuitous rhythm. The track’s repetitiveness and crazed energy heighten the sense of being trapped in an evil circus party. It is this circus-like energy that the Magnetic Fields should attempt to capture—they are best when they are outlandish, zany, and chaotic. In “Love at the Bottom of the Sea,” however, they miss their mark, playing clowns who try to entertain with nothing but cheap lyrical tricks.
—Staff writer Keerthi Reddy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.