After an ill-fated trilogy of albums produced entirely without synthesizers, each seemingly lost in its own specific conceptual wasteland, it's a huge relief to hear the weird electronic salvo that introduces the Magnetic Fields' Love at the Bottom of the Sea, another smart, acidic album that nonetheless still struggles with quality-control issues. The last three Magnetic Fields albums, beyond problems of conceptual confusion, left the impression that Stephin Merritt had blown a gasket after overextending himself on the at-times brilliant but spotty 69 Love Songs. There's still a feeling of something missing here, and while the material is much stronger than on the band's most recent releases, there's also a sense that these are the first 15 songs Merritt wrote for the project and not the best of a larger selection.
Such unevenness is easily forgettable when the band is really clicking, as on opener "God Wants Us to Wait," both a bouncily caustic dance track and a parody of itself, and "Andrew in Drag," one of the catchiest singles of the year so far. Standouts like these make Love at the Bottom of the Sea a logical successor to 69 Love Songs, with the oppressive glee of the music colliding with that same super-dry, Cole Porter-influenced lyrical style, and heaps of proper nouns to give the songs specificity.
As always, your enjoyment of the music will depend on your capacity to absorb so much terminal wryness, and even the best songs remain as fastidiously droll as ever. There are clunkers, like "Your Girlfriend's Face" and "Infatuation (With Tour Gyration)," which, instead of playing the lyrics off the backing for disjointed comic effect, fall victim to it, sounding fusty and old. Such comic effect is exploited more than ever before, partially because Merritt sounds crankier than ever, which accentuates the fish-out-of-water effect of pairing his voice with modern synth effects. But the humor of songs like "All She Cares About Is Mariachi" also comes across as a shield. It provides an angle for Merritt, a polymath who can't seem to produce albums without some kind of topical slant to sustain them.
The focus of Love at the Bottom of the Sea is once again electronics, but with the cynicism at a higher pitch than usual. In light of this, the album's best moments come when bubbly dance elements face off with static vocals. Merritt and Claudia Gonson, his band manager and partner in crime, have two of the driest, most staid voices in music. When matched with such expressive backing, they seem even more inert, and each track becomes a battle of which side is going to crack first. It's not spoiling much to say that neither ever does; Love at the Bottom of the Sea has its highs and lows, but Merritt's hardline melancholy never surrenders.