When did pop music become so serious? Can anyone pinpoint the moment that we started to become so concerned with authenticity? About whether someone had changed their name or had their teeth fixed? Whenever it was, it seems a long time ago now.
Chin up, everyone, here’s Stephin Merritt to lighten the mood.
As sharp as Mark E Smith, as witty as Nigel Blackwell and nearly as prolific as Damon Albarn, Merritt is back with the tenth Magnetic Fields record – and is back in love with electronica, by the sounds of it. Merritt followed his 1999 magnum opus ’69 Love Songs’ with a three-album holiday from synth, almost as if trying to flee the scene of his own triumph. He makes up for lost time on ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea’, packing the record with as many chirping and quavering instruments as he had wall sockets available.
The songs (fifteen of them, all weighing in at two minutes-odd) are full of arch wordplay and delivered deadpan, the meatiest punchlines set up by some finely arranged note progression. Merritt locates his subject matter lurking at the back of cupboards and under beds – a love triangle ends with a call to a contract killer (‘Your Girlfriend’s Face’); a girl buys into the chastity industry but forgets to tell her suitor (‘God Wants Us To Wait’); a scorned wife lists her other half’s indiscreet (and indiscriminate) liaisons (‘My Husband’s Pied de Terre’). ‘Andrew In Drag’ is an unqualified success – a bittersweet tale of gender confused infatuation with a sweeping chorus and a host of delicious couplets (‘There is no hope of love for me, from here on I go stag, The only girl I’ll ever love is Andrew in drag’).
Merritt has collected some of the pithiest opening lines in music on this record. ‘The Horrible Party’, in which a sensitive outsider recoils from the boorishness of excess, beings ‘Oh, take me away from this horrible party and let me get home to mother’. It doesn’t all work and Merritt occasionally slips into contrived rhyme, as on ‘The Only Boy in Town’, or swamps his lyrics in pedestrian beats (‘Born to Love’). He clearly still relishes a challenge, though, converting what sounds like an off cut from Supertramp’s little-known baroque period into a ludicrously catchy pop single (‘Quick!’) and inverting the golf-widow staple in ‘All She Cares About Is Mariachi’, which contains a reference to Liberace in a way one can only admire.
Acerbic and knowingly playful, The Magnetic Fields may look increasingly like a band out of time, but it is this that makes them so appealing. And so very necessary.