This is Magnetic Fields’ first album with Merge since their 3-album masterpiece, 69 Love Songs. The comparison doesn’t do them any favors: Love Songs succeeded not because there weren’t any misses – there were – but that there was so much there the hits ended up forgiving the misses. Love at the Bottom sounds like a set of outtakes from 69 Love Songs: there’s the similar lovelorn theme, the wild mix of vocal styles, the cheekiness, the sheer eclecticism of it all. What’s missing is some of the wonder and some of the novelty. It’s almost like the Magnetic Fields could do this sort of album in their sleep.
This might sound like I’m damning the album with faint praise, and I kind of am, but derivative, tossed off songs from the Magnetic Fields are still damn well worth listening to. “Andrew in Drag,” is clever and peppy, and again Stephin Merrit is brilliant at finding the perfect rhyme (the video is likewise mesmerizing). “Quick!”, a track that comes late in the album, hits perfectly the tenor of an angry-sad-bitter-silly lover’s quarrel, which might well be Magnetic Fields’ trademark. It’s not sonically very creative, but it is, in its simple way, nearly perfect. So too is the opening track, “God Wants Us to Wait” (although it seems a little dated as a political statement). “You’re Girlfriend’s Face” is witty and disturbing, and a great piece of boppy electronica.
Still, if one is a fan of the Magnetic Fields, it’s hard not to listen to this album and to think that they’ve mined this territory already in 69 Love Songs. Blame it on Merrit’s unmistakable, inimitable voice, but hasn’t he sung “All She Cares About Is Mariachi” before, possibly two or three times before, and done it better? It’s also a terrible song to end the album with: slow and lugubrious. Better to go out with something up-tempo, like “Goin’ Back to the Country,” an improbable song about going back to Wyoming, which rhymes the dickens out of “Laramie.”
Decent Magnetic Fields is still, very very good. And if you’re a fan, you’ll certainly enjoy this album you just won’t enjoy it for very long. Not only is it short (barely over a half hour), it feels thin, and gets a little thinner after each listen. Ironically, there isn’t much treasure at the bottom of this album. So give it a spin or two, but come back to 69 Love Songs.