The Magnetic Fields – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea

It’s late and all, but the reviewing train has to keep on truckin’. And with crazyman Stephin Merritt at the helm you never know what concept could be up next. Maybe he’ll have a concept album about words that rhyme with ‘chair’! Maybe he’ll have a concept album where each song represents a letter of the alphabet! Maybe it’ll be an album about the sky and the colour blue! Or maybe it’ll just an album of dance songs that are between two and two and a half minutes long. Sigh.
Here’s the basic formula: think of a progressive song title (bonus points if it’s cloying and/or pretentious), then think of a bunch of words that rhyme with said title, then come up with a dozen or so quick verses that end with one of said rhyming words, then repeat the song title a few times. Success!
All of this is above synthesized dance music, not a bit of which sticks around, at least not in my mind. It’s all rather tired, but in classic Magnetic Fields style the album yields a few amazing songs to offset all the blah. “God Wants Us To Wait” is almost hilarious (and very catchy), and the tale of falling in love with a friend’s dance dare “Andrew In Drag” is just as funny (and VERY catchy), and late-album winner “Quick!” is positively Stars, all creative uses of the title word to drive the melody and hints of genuine emotion.
But the rest…gah, fuck. There’s a song called “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh,” and I hope you “like” that pun because the song sure as fuck won’t let you forget it. There’s a couple dumb crooning songs. There’s an infernal dance song called “Infatuation (With Your Gyration),” and I hope you like that one rhyme because the song sure as fuck won’t let you forget it. There’s a song proudly titled “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre,” and like the other songs in this paragraph it’s just a silly, short dance song that nobody would ever dance to. The song I wrote about Stalin last night is better than these gnobblers! He sounds so proud of every somewhat clever rhyme, as if those are substitutes for content! There isn’t a single song with memorable music! There’s an awful mariachi song! Gah, make it stop!
But dem three songs. That’s gotta be worth average, at least. But god damnit, thinking of all the times you can rhyme a city name with a verb doesn’t make music interesting. And they ARE capable of being clever when they went – like that one time they describe fighting as “like the mating calls of sarcastic sharks,” but most of this serves to make me think Stephin Merritt (or at least his songwriting persona) is a (talented) bag of ass. But dem three songs! Yet I’m so glad that it’s over, and you will be too.

5 / 10

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Stephin Merritt – Obscurities

Credited to Stephin Merritt, though anyone who says they know him as anything other than the Magnetic Fields guy are probably lying, this is a compilation of B-sides and outtakes and early versions, the kind that everyone has to put out at least once per career to prove that they aren’t great judges of song quality.
Did you know: being in requited love is far preferable to being in unrequited love? If you do, then you get the point of nearly every Magnetic Fields song. No matter how creative Stephin is at telling that story – and he is very creative and clever – it gets a bit tiresome. Everything on here, like much of the rest of the catalogue, is allergic to openly talking about expression, or world events, or opinions other than love = good. Horse apples!
This being an oddity collection helps this album by not having a conceit, like most Magnetic Fields albums, so that you can hear an acoustic nicety next to an early cheap synth number. Combined with a few early versions of album highlights and it sounds like an album recorded by a normal witty, eclectic, morose baritone guy.
The songs done with occasional band The 6ths and the cheesy soundtrack work are boring, but the rest of the MF songs are pretty golden. “I Don’t Believe You” is better as a faster-paced pop song (and I love the first second where Merritt is slightly too slow to join his backing vocalists), and “Take Ecstacy WIth Me” is even more touching slash fun with a warm keyboard line and female vocalist. There’s two early B-sides that would’ve improved their albums (including a hilariously dystopian-sounding “fun at the beach” thing), and if the cleverness is toned down a bit, it’s a B-sides collection! Plus, it’s the Magnetic Fields, and it therefore beats the new Regina Spektor album. Merritt’s bathos beats most other peoples’ pathos.

7 / 10

The Magnetic Fields – Realism

Opener “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind” is classic Magnetic Fields! It’s a clever non-love song that mixes a twangy banjo and swooping violin line into a fine pop song, and dem lyrics: “You think I’ll run not walk to you / Why would I want to talk to you / I want you crawling back to me / Down on your knees, yeah / Like an appendectomy sans anesthesia” and “You can’t go ’round just saying stuff because it’s pretty / And I no longer drink enough to think you’re witty”? Cutting yet amusing, charming yet pointed, and perfect for Stephin Merritt’s matter-of-fact delivery. It’s just about a perfect little song; a folk song Magnetic Fields up into greatness.
And I hope you enjoyed the big ol’ boner that song gave you, because that’s it for this stupid release. The rest is a bunch of childlike folk song crap that Peter Pansies around singing about a bunch of dolls having a tea party and having a hootenanny (which sounds like the lamest hootenanny ever) and Christmas trees and other dumb stuff, all in thrall to the idea of a self-conscious devotion to making non-rock music. Also there’s an interlude let by harp.
This album is terrible. Half of it sounds like a bunch of fake happy songs for isolated manchildren who want to watch clowns dance and eat cotton candy ice cream, made by a bunch of enslaved adults that have to keep smiling under penalty of lashing. The other half is just a bunch of boring slow croony songs. And even when it tries to be somewhat interesting it’s the same children’s melodies, just applied to concepts like “dance dance the Dada polka”-ing or being “seduced and abandoned,” which, last I checked, is creepy when sung in the way one would sing about Mary’s little lamb.
Early Magnetic Fields might not have always shaved my balls due to being all cheap synths – I didn’t think it went too well with the cerebral lyrics and made the (often brilliant) melodies hard to pick out, but here the problem is firmly with the songs. Sober this album is derivative and ugly, shit-faced it’s fucking boring. Who in their right mind would ever play past track 1 more than once to listen, and twice to make sure it was a shitty as previously thought?
But that first track…it’s a doozie! Okay, the closer “From A Sinking Boat” is kinda neat too, because it’s a bunch of atmospheric strings and tipsy sitar instead of pretending to be cheerful. But I have nothing else that’s nice to say.

3 / 10

The Magnetic Fields – Distortion

I may be a man with a headache, but that’s not gonna stop me from saying from things about this album. Moreover, it’s not gonna stop me from making some words about it, either.
Every stupid Magnetic Fields album has to havea stupid “concept” behind it, usually benign, but this time the conceit is that it’s a “rock” album with distorted guitars. Get it???? Yes, the Merritt man is clever like that. Unfortunately, the Merritt man doesn’t really understand what rock music is, so every song just has a whirring electric uitar making identical noise behind it. Every single one, for every single second. Maybe some of the tuneless distortion sounds slightly different in timbre, but for the most part it’s like a regular album with the sound of a cement mixer somewhere back there. Now don’t get me too wrong, I kinda like the sound of a cement mixer behind my tunes. On a scale of not rock’n’roll to rock’n’roll, it’s pretty rock’n’roll, but ye gods man, not identically for forty minutes. But okay, it’s neat some of the time.
Secondly, putting a rock thing behind a slow sad bastard show tune does not make it a rock song. And I don’t think Stephin Merritt is really into making rock songs – I think he’s prefer to make show tunes for guys in capes to belt out on stage. And here maybe six of the thirteen songs fit that description, and I don’t care for any of them except “I’ll Dream Alone”. And one other song is a “surf rock” song that’s way too slow to describe anything other than getting to the beach and finding that it’s all muddy and then it starts to rain and your friends are fat and you try to have fun anyway but it’s not fooling anyone.
This is all mitigated pretty well by the fact that the remaining four songs are stone cold classics. The completely out-of-character angry rant “California GIrls” is a genuine rock song and clever, fun, and amusing in addition to just pissed-off (at the media) (which is great in itself). “Please Stop Dancing” might be stupid and a show tune but ‘sblood if that dumb bass line doesn’t get stuck in my head forever. “Drive On Driver” is the other functionally normal rock song, and it features two ridiculous wonderful moments: a completely unnecessary throaty scream three seconds in, and a high note in the chorus that’s so beautiful it makes me see god. “Too Drunk To Dream” features a forty-second intro that’s maybe the best paean to getting shit-faced I’ve heard this year before launching into another genuinely rock’n’roll number punctuated with half-second feedback squeals that are the cat’s ass. “The Nun’s Litany” is another great lyric, and “Courtesans” is nice, too.
So there you go. A bunch of great songs, a slightly larger bunch of terrible ones, and a gimmick that makes listening to them all at once pretty terrible. But great for mix tapes! I’m torn between a six and seven, but the gestalt of this album is pretty rough, even if I’m happier that it exists than I am about most sevens I give. Ah fuck it, it’s a seven!
Also, Merritt only sings half the songs, and the silky female vocalist sings funny half of them. And a lot of them are about sex. Those are things.

7 / 10

The Magnetic Fields – I

Here’s all you need to know about the level of effort on this album: this is a concept album, and the concept herein is that every song title starts with the letter i. For added convenience, the songs are then arranged in alphabetical order. That’s the concept here. There’s no thematic connection, no lyrical motif or musical leitmotif, just the fucking letter i.
See, kids, this is what a mediocre album sounds like. The bane of the reviewer and the product of the talented but frustrated mind. I can imagine the process that went on: five years after a major accomplishment, and Merritt had to release something. I bet there were a dozen false starts, then all the failed half-started songs from those themes were grouped together and made believe to be part of a family. But no, this is just a bunch of mostly decent songs.
At least there’s no synths this time. But there’s no real guitar either, just a lot of baroque pop tunes, led by ukeleleleles and violins. Without the weight of difficult instrumentation or forty clever songs this album just floats away, and all the faster for most of it. I don’t know what qualifies as ‘chamber pop’, but this is certainly music for the prematurely old. The one ‘dance’ song is more than stale, and while I love the dark “I Wish I Had An Evil Twin”, the entire second half of the album is filled with overdone sentiments, half-baked melodies, and other negatives, including the miserable “I’m Tongue-Tied”.
I’m struggling to find a way to work this into the review, but let me just say that this album is a bleak Merrittocracy!
Oh, you didn’t like that? It sounds like it took about as much labour as this boring, disappointing album.

4 / 10

Stephin Merritt – Pieces Of April

Today I replace my iTouch. It’s been a good four years and eleven months. I’ll always remember how it came for free with my laptop (which is also near to death). I’ll also remember the dozen or so times I thought it was dead for sure but it brightened my life by somehow soldiering on. These include the time I cracked its screen three years ago by dropping it in a Walmart parking lot the day I bought my air conditioner, the two times I managed to completely immerse it in water, the two times it started turning off every five minutes for over a day each time, and the time I desperately tried to get it to start again by jabbing a Q-Tip in the headphone jack (which worked). But now the battery life has dwindled to less than an hour and it’s time to say goodbye. The Wi-Fi never worked, but the volume always went louder than the volume on my phone. If old devices had feelings I’d wish for a pleasant trip down my building’s garbage chute. Because, as my father used to say, “if I can’t take it to the gym, what’s the good of it?” Okay, my father didn’t really say that.

This album is as long as the list of people I hate: about twenty-seven minutes. Just seven new songs, since three are nicked from 69 Love Songs (including the fantastically great “I Think I Need A New Heart” and the overrated fart-buzz of “The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side). This is the soundtrack to a movie I would never have heard of it didn’t have Katie Holmes in it, who was pretty goddamned hot when I was a teenager. I didn’t see it, though.

But I do “see” that this is an obvious stopgap from a man coming off a run of amazing output, and the new songs here sound like outtakes from 69 Love Songs, meaning they’re pretty really good. Nothing special lyrically (just the usual cleverness and bad puns), just another bunch of love songs with solid melodies and the voice of a taciturn, superbass gay guy (not that his gayness is relevant) crooning all over it. It works, but materially this is shorter than many EPs, and Katie Holmes doesn’t look as good with red hair.

7 / 10

The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs

69 LOVE SONGS

Welp. Turns out Stephin Merritt’s kind of a god and I shouldn’t say anything bad about him ever. See, he’s the main guy in this band, The Magnetic Fields, and they just put it the fuck together.
In the world of sport, of which I am a fan (of watching), TMFs are a guy with all the natural talent in the world but rarely puts it together. A prized prospect who frustrates the scouts and gets his hitting coaches fired. This album is that guy breaking out, and sustaining it. I’m not sure I needed that analogy, but holy Smoak is this album amazing.
69 love songs! Love songs, all sizes! The amazing thing here isn’t just the volume, but the variety. Ulysses-like, Merritt shows knowledge of a variety of genres, mostly to laugh at them and show that he could do a whole album in that style if he so chose, then inverts them and makes everything a simple love song. Here’s a jazz song! Here’s some spoken word! Here’s a song that sounds like Depeche Mode! Here’s a call-and-response song! Here’s a show tune!
Then there’s the pop songs. Reams of them, most of them show a ridiculous ability to make new songs with two or three basic chords. Songs like “When My Boy Walks Down The Street” and “I Don’t Wanna Get Over You” are just C-G things (the latter anyway) or other very simple progressions. But damned if they aren’t excellent.
Enough of all that, let’s talk about words. I don’t think I know a single other album that demonstrates such a mastery of lyric-writing. The love song is taken at every direction and fucked up and down. A half dozen cities serve as backdrops, he makes you amused, he makes you sad, he writes songs that, finally, can serve as insight into your own life. Mine, anyway. Let’s have some lyrics:

“I could make a career of being blue / I could dress in black and read Camus / Smoke clove cigarettes and drink Vermouth / Like I was seventeen / That would a scream / But I don’t wanna get over you”
“A pretty girl is like a violent crime / If you do it wrong you could do time”
“Love is like a bottle of gin / But a bottle of gin is not like love”
“Washington D.C. / It’s the greatest place to be / It’s not because it is the grand old seat of precious freedom and democracy / …It’s just that’s where my baby waits for me”
“One kiss from me / And you’ll be spinning like a gyroscope / One tryst with me / And you’ll be pope!”
“Come back from San Francisco / And kiss me I’ve quite smoking”
“You need me like the wind / Needs trees to blow in / Like the moon needs poetry you need me”

I mean, it just goes on and on and on. No, Stephin Merritt is still not a go-to for an artist bleeding his own thoughts, but when it comes to faking it he’s really really really good here. And sure there’s like 30 missteps, but fuck, there’s like 40 great songs here! What the fuck album has FORTY great songs on it? This one, and pretty much this one only. I know love songs are wimpy, but this is an absolute monolith. By the time it’s done I always think that the love song qua love song is pretty much done, and it takes days to recover.

10 / 10