The fine line between irony and toilet humor

Now I already know what you are thinking. What does a literary rhetorical device denoting an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually stated and a brand of off-color humor meant more to shock the viewer than make them laugh have to do with each other? And while we’re at it, just how fine a line can there be between the two of them? To which I will exclaim over how astute you are, my dear readers! I’m so glad you have asked these very pertinent questions. The answers are really quite simple when you are talking about The Magnetic Fields. In their case, irony and toilet humor are hopelessly entwined and the line between then is… well, there is no line!
Originally hailing from Boston and releasing records since 1991 (how’d I miss out on this?), the Magnetic Fields is the satirical and oft-times amusingly vulgar troupe that is helmed by indie music mastermind Stephin Merritt. Delivering cynical, tongue-in-cheek lyrics in his distinctive deadpan bass voice, Merritt proves that he is sharp of tongue and even sharper of wit. Aside from penning the majority of the songs and serving as the primary lead singer, he is also their producer and a multi-instrumentalist. On past albums he has shared the role of lead singer with other band members and this is true of their latest offering, 2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Approximately half the album is sung by band mates Shirley Simms and Claudia Gonson, although their voices are so similar please don’t ask me who sings which song.
Ranging from quirky synth pop with occasional industrial influences to folk-tinged rock, the band pokes fun at sex, religion, violence, and gender roles in a less than subtle fashion. Think of They Might Be Giants without the sense of childlike innocence or perhaps a mellower version of the Butthole Surfers. And with all the springy little electronic embellishments added in, Devo certainly must have been an influence to some extent. The mood of the album fluctuates between the maniacally cheerful to the endearingly despairing–with many stops along the spectrum. And Merritt goes out of his way to write songs that obscure the singer’s gender identity and sexuality, leaving the interpretation open to the audience who are free to identify with whatever orientation they choose. The result is a clever, naughty, and at times surprising album. And the songs are strong, with just enough pop appeal to keep the album afloat, and every line is delivered with a completely straight face. The real kicker though is that like Discordians and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’re never fully certain whether or not they are joking with you, but you’re pretty damn sure they are laughing at you behind your back… Probably…
Opening the album is the techno composition called God Wants Us to Wait, which flirts with industrial with its distorted tones and pulsing beats. In it a detached, rather mechanical attitude competes with the overt sexual references sprinkled throughout the lyrics.
One of the high points of the album is the melodic Andrew in Drag, which would be downright sweet if it weren’t for a few crude but clever double entendres. The video is wonderful though and I love that they chose to feature a drag king as counterpart to Andrew’s drag queen. Be warned, this is not safe for work (mind the boobs!).
Showcasing the blackest of humors, Your Girlfriend’s Face is the height of buoyant brutality. Probably one of the most chipper songs on the album, it focuses on a spurned lover who hires assassins to exact their revenge. It was about this time that I really started wondering just what I’d gotten myself into. Ironically, it is the song that seems to get stuck in my head the most and I have found myself randomly singing lines from it during the past week. Kind of makes me wonder what that says about me…
The album closes with the slow-paced, heavy-on-the-horn-section tune entitled All She Cares About is Mariachi. Employing some classic sounds from that characteristically Hispanic genre but dragging out the melody to a snail’s crawl and peppering the lyrics with peculiarly convenient rhymes, the song skirts around cute and into the just plain odd. But it is catchy, I’ll give Merritt and his cronies that much.
The first time I listened to this, I truly was unsure how I felt about it. After listening off and on for the last few weeks, I’m still not sure. But I’m still listening, which has got to count for something, right?
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