So prolific is The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt (also the driving force behind Future Bible Heroes, The Gothic Archies, The 6ths and, latterly, composer of film and musical scores) that it’s easy to take his talent for granted. But lest we forget, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a timely reminder that he’s pretty much the master when it comes to penning arch pop.
It’s not easy to inject humour into songwriting but Merritt does it seamlessly, peppering sweetly sung melodies with just the right amount of acerbic lines – the cynical and the sentimental balanced beautifully. These 15 tracks are perhaps his most consistently well-executed examples of this, and they also mark The Magnetic Fields’ return to the celebrated sound that made their name – the scratchy synths, delicately strummed acoustic guitars and baroque strings of 1999’s 69 Love Songs.
As Merritt and fellow lead vocalist Claudia Gonson take turns to deliver terrifically twisted ballads, you can almost hear the smirks throughout Your Girlfriend’s Face’s cool, calm plot to hire a hitman, while crunchy electronics cackle in the background. And the knowing glances and cheeky winks continue on Merritt’s odes to celibacy (God Wants Us to Wait), women cursed with a wandering eye (The Only Boy in Town) and slightly unhinged obsessives (The Machine in Your Hand).
The wit flips regularly from hilarious to heartbreaking – and Merritt frequently manages to conjure up both in one song (I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh, I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies, My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre, Quick!) and then, suddenly, becomes deliciously camp. If there’s a better opening line in a song this year than "Take me away from this horrible party and let me get home to mother" (The Horrible Party) then we’ll eat our (party) hat. Then there’s the girl who spurns her other half in favour of dancing because All She Cares About Is Mariachi; on it, Merritt sighs in his beautiful bass tones, "Go there, and wear your hair like Liberace."
And then there’s a glorious little ditty like Andrew in Drag, its subject matter of a self-professed "ladies man"’s sexual confusion subtly pioneering over a bossa nova beat – as the narrator finds himself falling for a boy dressed as a girl. "My tail began to wag," Merritt croons, "The only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag." Twenty-three years into his career and he’s still pushing boundaries.
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