If you love both Stephen Sondheim and Soft Cell, you're the target audience for Stephen Merrit's latest marriage of '80s-style synth-pop and arch, theatrical wit-eracy
If they gave the Grammys for comedy albums to musical comedy albums, the Magnetic Fields would have next year’s award all sewn up with “Love at the Bottom of the Sea,” which embeds one riotous rim-shot couplet after another in an ocean of dreamy synth-pop.
Stephen Merrit’s band may have been a darling of the indie-rock crowd since the early ‘90s (especially with their landmark opus, “69 Love Songs”), but “Sea” is worthy of the Great White Way set, too, given the songwriter’s way of arriving at some of the least likely rhymes in recent pop history.
Merrit waits till the 15th and final number, “All She Cares About is Mariachi,” to go completely over the top, pairing the title line with “hair like Liberace” and “hire Saatchi and Saatchi.” Maybe he should have quit one song earlier, while he was ahead. But extremism in the defense of wit is not necessarily a vice with someone as gifted and cocky about wordplay as Merrit.
The album arguably peaks with its opener, “God Wants Us to Wait,” a pro-abstinence anthem that some wag will inevitably suggest be taken up as a Santorum campaign song, given the chaste narrator’s proposal that he and his intended should have 72 children once they do start mating.
A hymn-like synth line gives way to a tremelo guitar and then a slow dance beat as guest singer Randy Walker declares: “I guess it’s true I should have told you before/And not have waited till we’re nude on the floor/Though it would be the perfect end to our date/I love you baby but God wants us to wait…/How much more wonderful to anticipate!” Yes, Janet Jackson’s classic “Let’s Wait Awhile” finally has an arch musical cousin.
The single, “Andrew in Drag,” has a pitiable Merrit lost in reverie for a friend who dressed up as a girl just one time. “So stick him in a dress and he’s the only boy I’d shag…/I’ll never see that girl again, he did it as a gag/I’ll pine away forevermore for Andrew in drag.” It’s the funniest exploration of confused gender politics since Ray Davies fell for Lola.
Speaking of gender confusion, Merrit shares lead vocals with Walker, who’s known for performing in half-baked drag in the band Carletta Sue Kay (playing at South by Southwest next week). Several Walker-fronted numbers come from a female perspective, although the guest crooner sounds less like a gal than the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant.
It helps that Walker’s airy vocals contrast with Merrit’s sometimes drony baritone, offering an every-other-tune variety that’s reminiscent of the alternating leads you'd find on an equally comic They Might Be Giants album.
Walker handles the “girl” p.o.v. in numbers ranging from the-outrightly violent “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” a jaunty tune about hiring a hit man, to “The Only Boy in Town,” a sweet-sounding lament about the pitfalls of promiscuity (“I would not go half mad for each passing lad/With eyes of blue, green, grey or brown/No, if you were the only boy in town”).
Merrit’s at his best treading the fine line between romantic infatuation and social satire in the brilliant “Machine in Your Hand,” observing his smartphone-obsessed love interest turning into “a machine with meat stuck to it,” and longing to trade places with the iPhone so he could "light you with my glow."
Fortunately, Merrit makes only the slightest nod toward adopting the tropes of country music in the still-synthy “Goin’ Back to the Country.” The most basic test of whether you’ll love or hate the entire album might be your reaction to the line “I’m gonna let Laramie take care of me till they bury me.”
If you can handle that, you can handle subsequent couplets like “Every alley cat in town/Knows my husband’s flat in town/Better get your derriere/To my husband’s pied-a-terre.”
Then there’s “Horrible Party,” a description of a debauched bacchanal that brings to mind “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” at least until the singer starts complaining about a player piano that constantly launches into “Anything Goes,” a reference that’ll fly over the heads of much of the Magnetic Fields’ ‘80s-synth-pop-nostalgic fan base.
Stephen Sondheim and Soft Cell, you can both eat your hearts out.