Being a Stephin Merritt fan has become a somewhat frustrating ride since 69 Love Songs raised the bar for both ambition and entertainment so ludicrously high. Much of Merritt’s output since has been excellent, but there’s always the sense of his albums focusing on high concept at the expense of consistent quality. The Magnetic Fields‘ last pair of albums pitted distortion against purely acoustic instrumentation. Their last three have been made entirely without synthesisers.
It appears that Love At The Bottom Of The Sea has been made with relatively little emphasis on rules and regulations. This time all the songs utilise synthesisers, and Merritt has spoken of using them as a compositional resource as much as a feature of the arrangements. The sound is certainly much closer to earlier Magnetic Fields releases such as Get Lost or Holiday, except that the vocal performances are generally much stronger.
When Merritt gets sonically restless, the result can sometimes be a tinny and unpleasant imposition on the ears. This was certainly the case with some of the castoffs on the recent Obscurities compilation and it’s a problem that occasionally hampers some of the more cluttered moments here. Born For Love is a confusing mesh of whooshes and whirrs with a melody that may or may not be average by Merritt’s exacting standards. It’s hard to tell, so thoroughly is it obfuscated by the dissonant, maddening accompaniment. Merritt’s current obsession with altering the pitch of his synths to make them jarringly out of tune is hardly radical experimentalism – it’s mostly just plain annoying. The otherwise fun Infatuation (With Your Gyration) is the worst offender.
Elsewhere though, Merritt is on absolutely top form. The opening trio is some of his best work. Your Girlfriend’s Face is wonderfully acerbic. God Wants Us To Wait is an irresistible satire on America’s chastity cults and Andrew In Drag is deliriously camp and soaked in Merritt’s customary irony (“The only boy I’ll ever love is Andrew in drag”). All three adopt Merritt’s kitchen-sink approach to lo-fi production a little more judiciously. Sensitivity is hardly Merritt’s aim here – but whilst he remains such a master of the pop song, drawing on all sorts of pre and post-rock ‘n’ roll influences, it’s so much better when he doesn’t drown out the more musical elements of his oeuvre.
Shirley Simms returns on vocals for a few tracks and, as usual, the contrast between different vocalists enables calculated irony. This is a rather predictable feature of Merritt’s songwriting now, so the impact of the use of different vocalists now arguably lies more in its providing for variations in sound and texture. Merritt clearly has the ability to make his music every bit as clever and quirky as his words (he has done this many times before after all), it’s just that he sometimes eschews this in favour of a clunky, home recorded sound. Love At The Bottom Of The Sea certainly has its moments, but Merritt albums now feel like inessential appendices to a great catalogue, rather than fundamental further developments.