As his musical career enters its third decade, Stephin Merritt is revisiting old haunts, in more ways than one. Love At The Bottom Of The Sea, the landmark tenth long-player from Merritt’s Magnetic Fields project is the first album of new material he has recorded in over ten years for Merge, the label he called home for much of the Nineties; it also marks a return – after a trio of synth-free albums (i, Distortion and Realism) – to the combination of acoustic instruments and electro-pop sound last heard on 1999’s epic triple-disc set 69 Love Songs. Featuring the usual supporting cast of Claudia Gonson, John Woo, Johny Blood, Daniel Handler, Sam Davol and Shirley Simms, the album comprises fifteen tracks that all clock in at under three minutes and – unlike previous releases – steers clear of any thematic links or overriding concepts, making for a grab-bag of different styles: “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” uses keyboards and tinny drum machines to recall the likes of ‘80s chart-toppers Heaven 17 and the Human League, but elsewhere they are looped and sampled to create darker (“Born For Love”), more psychedelic (“I’ve Run Away To Join The Faeries”) soundscapes. As always, Merritt’s acerbic wit makes the lyrics the main focal point, spinning out humourous, pithy tales of loves lost and unrequited and ambiguous carnal misadventure; “Your Girlfriend’s Face” finds the protagonist hiring a hit-man to do in both parties in an envied relationship, whilst “God Wants Us To Wait” is a purity ring-clad middle finger to America’s youth abstinence cults (“I guess it’s true I should have told you before/ And not have waited ‘til we’re nude on the floor”). With lead single “Andrew In Drag” amongst the finest songs in his considerable catalogue, Merritt shows once again why he has been labeled “the indie Cole Porter”, and Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is a typically enchanting effort that only serves to support that claim.
Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is out March 5 on Domino in the UK and March 6 on Merge in the US, and is streaming in full now at NPR