Style versus substance: according to some, this is the great conflict of popular music. Stephin Merritt is not one of them. It’s no secret that The Magnetic Fields’ frontman has long spurned the idea of genuineness and sincerity in his pop songs. He maintains that all music is a construction and thus cannot possibly contain true feelings. Nonetheless, he and the Magnetic Fields have managed to turn out gems exploring the nature of pop for two decades.
With their latest, “Love at the Bottom of the Sea,” however, he seems to have stopped trying. Merritt used to write witty songs imbued with real emotion. The rueful self-awareness of “You need me/like the wind needs the trees to blow in/like the moon needs poetry/you need me” is replaced by the flat parody of “I love you baby, but God wants us to wait.” Ever since their fantastic 1999 release, “69 Love Songs,” the band’s offerings have gradually turned from well-fleshed-out scenes into simple delivery systems for Merritt’s puns.
Is it deliberate? Of course. It’s fascinating to think about whether that’s the only purpose of any character, any pop song, as is done here. Unfortunately, in creating an ideologically interesting album, the Magnetic Fields has ultimately created an unlistenable one. At a mere 34 minutes, this seems far too long. Almost every song is punchline-driven and filled with thoroughly dull music. The only standout is “Andrew in Drag”; over burbling synths and an effortlessly flowing melody, humorous sweetness and questions of identity are interwoven beautifully. The pure pop cheekiness of “The only girl I’ve ever loved is Andrew in drag,” doesn’t hurt either.
Overall, “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” is far too silly, without sharp emotion to counterbalance it. Fans will surely turn to albums from the Magnetic Fields’ halcyon days instead.