I hate to say it, but Love at the Bottom of the Sea is such a drag: a damp and dreary album, drowning in bad faith and bad jokes. In fact, while the album is being touted as a return to form, reminiscent of 1999’s excellent 69 Love Songs, the band only seems to have given into its worst tendencies — comedy, cutesiness, and camp — all of which, used in excess here, destroy any sense of music itself. Are people really still making fun of faith-based abstinence? Who’s still laughing at crystal meth jokes? Is it truly clever to rhyme “hibachi” with “mariachi” or even “Saatchi and Saatchi”? Is a dick joke any funnier when it’s called a “sausage”? Sure, the subject matter is adult, but there’s nothing more to these songs than the point-and-laugh humor of an eight-year-old. I’m not even sure why they’re songs at all. The muddy synth arrangements add absolutely nothing to the experience, and the cute-and-crabby vocals only jangle the nerves. Gay They Might Be Giants? A depressive Weird Al in drag? The Muppets take Club 57? There’s no way of doing justice to this album; there’s no way to experience it in good faith. Somewhere in heaven, the muse of comedy is beating the crap out of the muse of song, and Irving Berlin is not laughing.
Sure, pop musicians have been using comedy forever, but a joke is not the same as a song. In other words, if you’re laughing too hard, you’re no longer experiencing music. The funniest musicians are rarely taken seriously as musicians (with the notable exception of Frank Zappa), while the most musical comedians have done little more than mocked their sources (think Steve Martin, Jimmy Fallon, The Lonely Island, Zach Galifianakis, Flight of the Conchords, Bo Burnham, etc., etc.). Comedy is essentially divisive. As Henri Bergson famously claimed, we laugh at a person behaving like a thing, in order to assert our superiority over thingliness. Monkeys laugh, but only to show their teeth; we can eat you, they’re saying, because you’ve fallen and you’re weak. Conversely, satisfying music depends on a shared feeling: a sense of common cause, some essential identification of mind or body with the performer. 69 Love Songs often used humor to capture the many moods of love, but the album never came across as comedy. Rather, each song figured as a marvelous conceit, putting on display certain complex feelings through specific musical styles or genres. “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” “When My Boy Walks Down The Street,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams”: these songs are all essentially absurd, but they make sense because they are getting at emotions that first came into being as musical emotions, as soul, as bubblegum pop, as Hollywood schmaltz. Listening to Love at the Bottom of the Sea, however, I have nothing to share with either the characters in the songs or the performers who created them. “God Wants Us To Wait,” “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre”: these songs are simply mean, and mean without cause. The incongruity between their lyrics and their electro-pop arrangements only brings out the emptiness of both. The music here is slow, plodding, depressive, or manically upbeat, bouncy, cloying; either way, they’re not fun to be around. Sure, people are callous and mean and stupid, but I don’t need music that feels the same way. I don’t need music to laugh at the idiots in my world; I need it to escape them.
And then there’s the album’s unbearable cutesiness. The synths are too bright and bouncy, the voices cartoonish and twee, the rhymes as simple as babytalk. It all comes across as a ruse, though, as if the album itself is playing cute to avoid getting hit for being cute. And, oh, you’ll want to hit it. “Hey, little cutie,” Merritt moans on one characteristically lethargic, gut-turning track, “I was born for love/ Can’t count the chains I have worn for love/ Killed three men and one unicorn for love/ But I won’t mind if you just take me home.” This number’s followed by the bubblegum bounce of “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh,” a song that barely sighs along, rhyming “Hugh” with “you” and the “Timbuktu.” Scholar Sianne Ngai makes an excellent case for how “cute” continually slips in meaning from “small” and “soft” to “helpless” and “pitiful.” The cute is just any annoying little thing that incites violence, but ultimately checks our sadistic impulses, saving itself from our wrath by virtue of its very vulnerability. No doubt, there’s much about pop music that is inherently cute — the bright musical palette, the simple rhyming, the babytalk refrains, the theme of adolescent love — and, in the right hands (Buddy Holly, They Might Be Giants, Belle and Sebastian), it can be used to amazing effect, conveying melancholy, nostalgia, giddiness, etc. On Love at the Bottom of the Sea, however, cutesiness is put forth in the name of comical incongruity — adult problems sung in childlike ways — but it comes across as nothing more than a cover for a serious lack of anything to say. These songs are inhabited by muppets: furry, fangless, sexless little creatures meant to distract you from the fact that there really is no monster under the bed.
As much could be said for the heavy gloss of cheap camp that coats the album. Given Merritt’s interest in early 20th-century pop music and classic show tunes, not to mention his frequent musical queering of gender expectations, it’s always been easy to excuse the band’s deficiencies as a compelling exercise in camp. Here, Love at the Bottom of the Sea shares with 69 Love Songs a sense of detached role-playing and giddy artifice, but the wit on display suggests less a skewering of tradition than a real failure to dig any deeper. While gender-bending and cliché-twisting abound, the shtick is both too thick and too thin, seeming less like a serious critique and more like a cheap performance in drag or, worse, a gay minstrel act for cultured liberals. Exhibit A is the album’s very first single, “Andrew In Drag,” an all-too-easy burlesque about star-crossed cross-dressed lovers. I’m not opposed to the song in any political way; I just don’t think it’s very funny or even very musical; it’s just a bunch of stereotypes strung together to imply comic mishap. “I’ve always been a ladies’ man and I don’t have to brag,” Merritt sings, “But I’ve become a mama’s boy for Andrew in drag/ I’d sign away my trust fund; I would even sell the Jag/ If I could spend my misspent youth with Andrew in drag.” It’s more like a novelty song than a genuine piece of music, but I can’t for the life of me figure out its intended audience. Closeted drag aficionados? Enlightened Kinks fans? NPR staffers? (Yup, it’s definitely the staffers.) It’s less a song about drag than a song in drag, just pretending to be a piece of transgressive art. I’m most annoyed by a line in the last verse, which avoids everything that might have been interesting about this fantasy: “So stick him in a dress, and he’s the only boy I’d shag/ The only boy I’d anything is Andrew in drag.” We all know Merritt has made a close study of Berlin and Porter, but the word “shag” here reveals nothing about the character or situation; it merely distracts us from the story’s lameness with a bit of incongruous wordplay. Perhaps, in its winking stylization, the couplet might allude to something like the critical function of camp, but the only really valuable kind of camp emerges from within the work itself, when it’s own idiosyncrasies are pushed to the point of stylish absurdity, not when they are layered on from without. As Susan Sontag famously claimed, “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“Camping”) is usually less satisfying.” In fact, as Sontag implies, intending to be camp always ends up harming the work of art; it suggests a lack of confidence, if not self-loathing, and invites nothing but mistrust from an audience.
There are a few songs buried deep in the middle of Love at The Bottom of Sea that show some of Merritt’s old spark. But the heat they generate is weak, fueled by grouchiness and just as quickly extinguished. “The Only Boy in Town” is a neat little bit of 60s folk-pop that pits the romance of monogamy against the sexual distractions of the city. “I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies” is a dark ode to anti-socialism that gives a queer twist to the Bottom fantasies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both “I Don’t Like Your Tone” and “Quick!” present Merritt the lyricist at his prickliest best, letting some little bit of grouchy honesty shine through the camp. (“Who will pay the rent?” may be the most honest line on the entire album.) Perhaps, you might say, Love at the Bottom of the Sea isn’t meant to be funny. Perhaps I’m focusing on its most superficial aspects, missing the point, ignoring the music, etc. But from its ridiculous cover image to its absurd mariachi finale, the album presents itself as a bit of adolescent sketch comedy, and with so little musical invention on display, it’s hard to see anything else in it. And, okay, maybe I’m the bore. But I believe all music is inherently comical, and even the saddest songs, the most serious classical music, or even the most abstract bit of sonic noise, when done really well, can leave me grinning idiotically. There’s nothing more hilarious than a three-note synth line, or dropping to your knees for a guitar solo, or singing in harmony, or writing a love song; there’s nothing more endearingly comical than a person getting on stage and pretending for two-and-a-half minutes that he is more than just a thing. It’s just unforgivable when an otherwise capable band can take all that built-in goodwill and sink it right to the bottom of the sea with cheap laughs and false spite.