“I heard he wrote you a song,
But so what?
Some guy wrote sixty-nine
And one just ain’t enough.”
Beulah ‘Popular Mechanics for Lovers’
Stephin Merritt has spent his last three albums trying to play down to his maximalist masterpiece 69 Love Songs, just as his detractors bemoan the fact he isn’t living up to it. Each of the entries in the “no-synths” trilogy has been based around a loose concept, but only once – on i‘s immaculate, alphebeticised chamber-pop – has the music seemed to have as much thought put into it as the workings behind it. It’s as if Merritt had lost confidence in the power of his own songwriting which, until his three-disc magnum opus, was never in question anyway. Now that the trilogy has come to an end, however, we have Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Though once again there is a concept of sorts: hey, everyone, the synths are back! Tellingly, though, it’s their first LP back on Domino and Merge Records – the last three were on modern classical label Nonesuch.
Opening track ‘Your Girlfriend’s Face’- sung, as most of the album’s best tracks are, by Merritt’s manager and all-round confidante Claudia Gonson – demonstrates this with aplomb, bursting into life with mad stabs of keyboard bliss before a deliriously psychopathic lyric worthy of the late, great Kirsty MacColl launches itself into the mix. Same goes for ‘God Wants Us to Wait’ (another Gonson-fronted track), a sarcastic attack on abstinence, over one of the slinkiest – dare I say sexiest? – rhythms Merritt has yet concocted. Then there’s, ‘The Only Boy in Town’ (Gonson again). Taking The Charm of the Highway Strip as its template, it merges knowingly-bad rhymes (“Fraaaaance” with “seance”?) with a gorgeously woozy country waltz, and deserves a place on anyone’s homemade best-of.
Then again, the acoustic instruments haven’t exactly been shoved back into storage. The chugging ‘Quick!’ mixes charming lyrics (“You’d better think of something, get me a drink or something!”), chiming guitars and a fuzzy bassline; and makes for the album’s most convincing synthesiser synthesis. Meanwhile, teaser single ‘Andrew in Drag’ practically sounds like something from an imaginary A Tune A Day: Ukulele Edition book. That was immediately slathered in synths. And it’s this simplicity which is the main problem with Love at the Bottom of the Sea. With soundtrack work and at least two operas on the go, Merritt’s writing here suggests that he’s above this kind of music now: the arrangements are less considered than ever, with brisker numbers like ‘Goin’ Back to the Country’ and ‘I Don’t Like Your Tone’ passing by without registering. The constant rush of music (15 songs in 35 minutes) gets sadly wearing, and the Tin Pan Alley stylings seem far more by-rote than they ever were when The Magnetic Fields made habitual use of electronics.
Hopefully, Merritt’s work on his operas (which he shrouds in secrecy) will allow him to get his higher-brow side across on its own terms. Before now, he’s managed to allow the two sides of his artistic self not to affect his work. Unfortunately, on Love at the Bottom of the Sea he can seem at times dismissive of his more frivolous side. And, by proxy – intentionally or not – of that of his audience.