The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt loves self-explanatorily titled concept albums, whether he's starting every tune's title with the letter I (on i), fiddling with distorted guitars (on Distortion) or writing and recording a whopping 69 love songs (on 69 Love Songs). So what to make of his band's 10th album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea? It doesn't appear to have been recorded underwater, but it does signal some characteristically abrupt shifts in philosophy — a new set of self-imposed rules.
For one, it circles back to the band's early sound, shifting back to the synth-driven pop which dominated fondly recalled mid-'90s albums like The Charm of the Highway Strip. Full of confused and otherwise conflicted love songs, Love at the Bottom of the Sea explores many facets of forbidden romance, particularly in the delightful, album-opening pairing of "God Wants Us to Wait" and "Andrew in Drag." The colorful but not exactly existential dilemmas continue in songs ideally crafted to match The Magnetic Fields' dour-but-droll delivery: "I Don't Like Your Tone." "All She Cares About Is Mariachi." "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies." "The Horrible Parties." These are hardly end-of-the-world concerns, so the conflicts play out with just the right mix of ruefulness and playfulness.
If a prevailing concept runs through Love at the Bottom of the Sea, it's the rejection of grandiosity or self-importance. These 15 songs feel slight by design — the longest track is a brisk 2:39, and the whole enterprise clocks out at about 34 minutes — but there's a world of wit in their brevity.
Love at the Bottom of the Sea will be available to stream on demand from Monday, February 27 through March 6, 2012. The album will be released March 6.