Lately I've been listening to two recently-released albums: the Magnetic Fields' "Love at the Bottom of the Sea," and the Shins' "Port of Morrow." Often back-to-back, such as when I'm exercising.
"Love at the Bottom of the Sea" is truly brilliant, above all in its lyrics, although the music is quite enjoyable as well (and they work as a package together). Songwriter Stephin Merritt has been called the Cole Porter of the rock era, and when he is at his best this is no overstatement. "69 Love Songs," the 1999 triple album which pretty much is just what it sounds like from the title, is one of the towering achievements in pop music over the last few decades. It's a consistently clever, delightfully conceptually brilliant, homage to, and subversion or deconstruction of, decades of love songs (not love itself) in popular music.
Since then, Merritt has experimented in a number of genres - like Alfred Hitchcock, he seems to enjoy self-imposed formal and technical challenges - with good results that were nonetheless generally below that of "69 Love Songs."
"Love at the Bottom of the Sea" could be called "15 More Love Songs." While lacking the fresh conceptual excitement of "69 Love Songs," the songs are on average just as good, and perhaps better. The lyrics range across the love song universe, frequently landing in territory that is distinctive to Merritt's dark but droll vision, and are just remarkably clever.
I saw the Magnetic Fields in concert early last month, and they played most of the new album, which I had purchased already but not yet heard. The show was great fun, and the new songs were instantly memorable. The group has evidently learned over time how to complement Merritt's personal glumness so that the show is lively and upbeat.
The Shins, like the Magnetic Fields, are less a band in the traditional collective sense than a vehicle for their songwriter (James Mercer). "Port of Morrow" offers a principally sound- and melody-based, rather than lyrics-based, experience, and indeed the words sound worse than they actually are when I play it right after "Love at the Bottom of the Sea." But it is a rich, lush, very enjoyable, great-sounding collection of catchy songs that invite repeat play. Indeed, if you measure enjoyment based on the urge for repeat plays and the extent to which the songs stick in one's head, the two albums are essentially tied.