Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Love at the Bottom of the Sea" by the Magnetic Fields: Sad Gavottes

Love at the Bottom of the Sea is the Magnetic Fields' first album in over a decade to feature synthesizers, their first album in fifteen years not to be guided by an overarching formalist conceit -- and (I add, solipsistically) their first new album since I became a fan two years ago. Long on sharp, specific lyrics and unusual synthesizer textures, if short on straightforward emotionality, this collection of under-three-minute pop songs has been entertaining me since it came out last week.

Lead single "Andrew in Drag" is delightful, a catchy tune about an appealingly off-kilter situation: a straight dude realizes that he has the hots for his friend Andrew, but only when Andrew is dressed as a girl. It's sweet and playful, but vaguely melancholy too, since the narrator's desires will never be fulfilled. And I love the Magnetic Fields when they are in sweet-but-melancholy mode (cf. my abiding affection for "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side").

My other favorite song on the album is the waltz "The Only Boy in Town." "Oh, if only you were the only boy in town / For then I could not play the field and let you down," it begins, and continues for three verses and a stunning bridge, full of damnably clever lyrics including a rhyme on "France," "seance," and "for the nonce." But for all the skewed logic and screwy wit, I found it the most relatable song on the album. It's about a woman who wishes she could force herself to love someone wholeheartedly -- and who among us has not felt the same way?

Several of the songs on this album mix old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley songwriting craft with contemporary subject matter -- "Andrew in Drag," a consideration of the vagaries of sexual attraction, being a prime example. The satirical "God Wants Us To Wait" is the perfect song for an era (and a nation) that considers Rick Santorum a viable presidential candidate. It is not a very pretty song, but presumably the martial beat and robotic-sounding vocals are intended to convey that evangelical anti-sex freaks are scary and fascistic. "The Machine in Your Hand" is a song about wanting to be your lover's smartphone the way that Romeo wanted to be a glove upon Juliet's hand -- the lyric "I'll have magical powers / Only they're scientific!" made me giggle.

Speaking of Shakespearean allusions and magical powers, the album also has a song called "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies." Reading the title, I was afraid we were in for something terribly twinkly and twee, about what jolly good fun it is to live in Fairyland. Fortunately, Stephin Merritt sees fairies as powerful and frightening, the way they are portrayed in traditional European folklore. To suitably eerie music, he sings that the fairies "will enchant me and enslave me" and give him an ass's head.

The Magnetic Fields are in goofy high spirits in many of these songs. "The Horrible Party," clearly a take-off on Noel Coward's "I Went to a Marvelous Party," sounds like it should be in a Broadway musical version of Vile Bodies. (Have I mentioned that Vile Bodies and the Bright Young People are my new obsessions? Because they are.) And the album ends with an electro-mariachi parody number exhorting us to "hire Saatchi and Saatchi / To advertise the sausage in your pants."

Yet I think the lyric that sums up Love at the Bottom of the Sea occurs in the unrequited-love ditty "I'd Go Anywhere With Hugh," which calls a love triangle "a sad gavotte." This feels like an emblematic Magnetic Fields line, and not just because Stephin Merritt is one of the few working songwriters who'd use the word "gavotte." "Sad gavotte" describes the characters' situation, the musical style of the song, the overall mood of the album, and, ultimately, the value and the appeal of the Magnetic Fields.

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