Interview: The Magnetic Fields drops an emotional bathysphere

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[Photo by Matthew Williams taken at Hotel Americano, New York.]

The Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the SeaThe Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge, 3/6/12)

“Andrew in Drag”

[audio:|titles=The Magnetic Fields: “Andrew in Drag”]

Stephin Merritt must have sonar. Whether helming The Magnetic Fields or penning songs for films and musicals, he finds depth in even the shallowest of topics and creates meaning by exploring meaninglessness. The title of his new, self-produced album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, hints at this process as it summons daydreams about mermaids, pirates, and amorous octopi.

Synthesizers power this emotional bathysphere, recalling the sound that the band debuted on Distant Plastic Trees in 1991 and refined on 69 Love Songs in ’99. Hints of ’80s synth-pop pepper the recording as well, nodding to artists such as Gary Numan and earlier versions of the Merritt that fans know and love.

“Parts of it were taken from very old recordings I’d done,” Merritt says. “Most were done in the last two years, but bits of the last three decades are in there. Like ‘My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre,’ parts of that song were recorded in 1982.”

The album’s sonic textures aren’t entirely retro, however. Many of the electronic gadgets that shaped this disc didn’t exist in the ’90s, Merritt says. Plus, after making three synth-less albums — i, Distortion, and Realism — the band was eager to test-drive the instruments that the past decade has spawned.

In addition to harnessing new technology, the album explores how technology harnesses its users, creating fears of inadequacy and strange love triangles between people and objects. With lyrics such as “your every touch would be my command, and I wouldn’t be so slow,” “The Machine in Your Hand” imagines the band as an anthropomorphic smartphone that’s more lovable and attentive than an analog human.

“People aren’t that different from inanimate objects,” Merritt says. “In fact, they seem to be inanimate objects about a third of the time. They’re only conscious once in a while, but it’s possible to fall in love with them anyhow.”

Sometimes, you can hook such a lover with a theatrical belly flop. Other times, you have to dive deep to woo them. Merritt uses both methods to lure listeners to Love at the Bottom of the Sea. His baritone voice propels them to the bottom of the musical scale, where odes to drag queens swim with tales about mariachi addicts.

Humor emerges not only from the lyrics but from mismatches between medium and message. As the words of album opener “God Wants Us to Wait” reference love, beauty, and the scent of jasmine, robotic vocals and dark traces of krautrock demonstrate the storyteller’s lack of emotional warmth.

“My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre” takes a similar tack, pairing a plaintive melody with lyrics about wild, carefree nights at a groovy love den. Perhaps this sadness stems from feeling unmoored in an Oprah-free world. Though Merritt won’t admit to being a fan of the famous talk-show host, he built the song around an episode of her show.

“This woman was telling Oprah how she discovered that her dead husband had this secret pied-à-terre,” he recalls. “In my song, he’s still alive, and you watch her discover that he has this secret hideaway where he’s getting a lot of nookie. But at the end, you realize she’s in an insane asylum.”

As the synths swirl and dissolve into the ether, questions begin to surface. If this story is a mirage, the people listening may be just as imaginary. Whether they’re real or a figment from Stephin Merritt’s cranium, one thing’s for certain: these songs are voyagers, traveling through space and time. When they plunge into ears and unearth submerged memories, they tether the band’s past to its present and tie the sonic relics of the digital age to a hazy, heady future.

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