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The Magnetic Fields, ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea’ (Merge)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 06, 2012
Label: Merge

Tragedy is universal, but not everyone can agree on what’s funny, and even fewer people bestow comedy with lasting value. This applies to all the arts, but particularly to popular music, which yields one They Might Be Giants or Nellie McKay for every thousand whiny rockers.

Blessed and cursed with a voice so low it registers as both funny ha-ha and funny peculiar, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields applies that duality to everything he does. If he writes a happy song, he’ll subvert it with sighing strings or weeping pedal steel. If he pens a sad sonnet, he’ll twist the pathos like a balloon until it resembles a poodle. He’s so masterfully dependable when folding punch lines into woeful tales that regular conceptual curve balls — a folk album! a Jesus and Mary Chain album! a triple CD of 69 freakin’ love songs! — are required to maintain his cult following’s interest in stalwart pop arias with the internal intricacies of a Fabergé egg.

Having completed his “no synth” trilogy — via the respective chamber pop, scuzz-rock, and folk frameworks of 2004’s i, 2008’s Distortion, and 2010’s Realism — Merritt returns to electronic keys for Love at the Bottom of the Sea, but they only occasionally draw attention to themselves as synth pop because they’re surrounded by more strings, accordion, banjo, tuba, flugelhorn, and musical saw than ever. Mostly, his machines oscillate discretely in support of art-pop so concentrated that not one of the 15 new tracks here hits the three-minute mark. Brevity further sharpens the comic timing: This ninth Magnetic Fields album packs into 34 minutes nearly as many yuks as the justly esteemed magnum opus 69 Love Songsmanaged in 172. Merritt is the Yngwie Malmsteen of tragicomedy, a dour clown born to shred with wit.

The efficiency of his drollness has grown uncanny, in fact, and the creepiness of its perfection is part of the fun. Marginalized by his voice, his sexuality, and his melodic sophistication in a time when most chart pop beyond Adele isn’t just Auto-Tune but anti-tune, Merritt compensates with inexhaustible intelligence, which, of course, accentuates those same liabilities and pushes him beyond the average music fan’s comfort zone. He understands the perversity of opening an album that’ll only sell to queers and the indie-pop liberals who love them with a Christian’s ode to abstinence, “God Wants Us to Wait,” but he knows there’s nothing more hilarious in this era of Internet-enabled haters than commercial suicide. And he avoids cheap shots. Like the song’s protagonist (and Ike & Tina Turner), he doesn’t do anything easy: His cunnilingus reference is so poetic and finessed (“Kiss the dew on my hem”) that it’s both barely there and doubly outré. Undulating on the wave of a reverberating death-rock riff dirtier than Distortion‘s unrelenting feedback, this opening salvo is pent-up and sexy in a way that Magnetic Fields ordinarily are pointedly not.

He’s once again smitten with ABBA’s Europop impression of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and the density and unpredictability with which he pursues it offsets the unerring rhythms of his rhymes: This is a guy who in album closer “All She Cares About Is Mariachi” can juggle “hibachi,” “Liberace,” and “Saatchi & Saatchi,” and have it all make sense while Merritt and his ever-more-ambidextrous cohorts approximate a south-of-the-border “Fernando.”

In addition to Merritt’s smorgasbord of song, Love also pigs out on his favorite topics: polymorphous perversity, unrelenting infidelity, parties out of bounds, fantasies of bloody revenge, and bucolic escape, and, of course, eternal yet impossible love. Written from the perspective of a cuckold not only jealous of his lover’s PDA but also aching to become that sensual pilot of palms, “The Machine in Your Hand” is in part his most potentially massive composition: Its subject matter couldn’t be more sympathetic, and the sing-along chorus similarly seduces. But both are saddled to a bumpy meter that bounces from 4/4 to 6/4 to 8/4 and back again like those deceptively smooth Burt Bacharach oldies packed with musical fluctuations that mirror love’s capriciousness as they trip up ill-prepared players. Cover versions are inevitable and bound to be messy. Ladies and germs, start your memes.