Haiku Review: Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea

I’m certainly not the first to do this, but I thought it would be fun. I’ll be posting these “Haiku Reviews” as addendums to my Initial Reactions posts that usually come at the beginning of the week.

double entendres

sexuality so weird

worn on his sleeve. eww.

Initial Reactions (2012): Bruce Springsteen, Magnetic Fields, Father John Misty

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball [A-]: A strong record that could have been stronger. The problem? Springsteen picked a potent theme (avarice), gave it a compelling banner (who or what is the wrecking ball here?), and then cast it in pristine production. The result is a good, maybe great record instead of a classic. It’s a winner for sure, but dressed up too pretty for a blue collar manifesto. Still, surprisingly fine. ("Wrecking Ball", "Land of Hope and Dreams")

Magnetic Fields – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea [B-]: That first track is funny and all, but the double entendres start to ring hollow around the album’s middle, if not sooner. Now I’m not enough of a follower to know how this fits into Merritt’s career, but what I do know from my copy of Holiday is that the man doesn’t need to rely on cheek to create a compelling record. Sure, it can be fun for the novelty, but overall, the results are forgettable. ("God Wants Us To Wait")

Father John Misty – Fear Fun [B]: Good night! J. Tillman tries hard to make a great record and makes a decent one. There’s 5 times he comes close to writing a classic tune, but he crams so much in that the tunes sag under the weight. At times, I get the sense that he’s so taken with his own abilities that he forgets to serve the song. Now I know that sounds oh-so-criticale, but just listen to track 10. Not writing a novel sir – writing songs. ("Funtimes in Babylon")

Late Greats: MAGNETIC FIELDS Holiday

holidayI got turned onto Holiday after I downloaded “Strange Powers” for free somewhere. In case you haven’t heard, “Strange Powers” is one of the best indie-pop songs ever written, and someday it will get its own much-deserved write-up on here. But I will cease with the clap-clap for “Strange Powers” and simply sing the album’s praises overall. Holiday is a magnificent, trippy ride through a sugar-coated pop world. Most of the songs here are in the major key, so there’s nothing too ironic about calling the record Holiday, because in 36 minutes it leaves you with a nice sense of euphoria. “Desert Island” opens the record in highly lo-fi fashion, fuzzy guitars, ethereal vocals, woody percussive effects, and casio keyboard tones filling out a jam-packed mix. The musical mix is so thick that the lyrics never get a chance to leave a huge impression, but as with most Magnetic Fields songs it is worth listening a little closer to make them out in all of their hilarity, clarity, and sincerity. “Deep Sea Diving Suit” continues in similar fashion, starting to say something of Stephen Merritt’s overall aesthetic, as if he’s sifting the goof out of They Might Be Giants’ quirky novelties. “Strange Powers,” as already mentioned, is transcendent, hitting your ears with the same magic that Graceland-era Paul Simon hit them in the eighties. Merritt delivers some of his strongest images lyrically, and the music is lush and dreamy.

Much of the magic of the rest of the album comes from Merritt’s unorthodox lo-fi instrumentation. His uninhibited keyboard layering delivers wall-of-sound impact in humble packaging, but at the root of it all is imaginative and melodic songwriting. “Swinging London” and “The Flowers She Sent And The Flowers She Said She Sent” are personal favorites. “In My Secret Place” comes off, like much of the record, with a “here’s the Smiths’ lost demos” feel. I can easily hear a less self-impressed Morrissey composing the track in his bedroom in the early 80’s.

The lovely orchestration of “Sad Little Moon” show that Merritt had more than just keyboards and drum machines up his sleeves. “Sugar World” shimmers with an almost Joshua Tree wide open light, and its only in the last three tracks that Merritt begins to stumble just a bit, though even these tracks have their weird appeal in the right context.

Overall, this is an oft-overlooked record that deserves to be seen as the Rubber Soul to 69 Love Songs’ Revolver. It’s quite possible that this record has had a greater influence on current indie sounds than is normally acknowledged, even if that influence has been often indirect. Nevertheless, it’s highly recommended for any fan of the indie pop sound.