The Magnetic Fields
Record Review by Adam McKibbin
Magnetic Fields leader Stephin Merritt seldom shies from a conceptual challenge. While toiling before a cult-sized audience, he released a 69-song triple album about unrequited love (1999's 69 Love Songs, now widely regarded as the pièce de résistance in his discography). While Merritt has since kept himself busy with a variety of projects, Distortion marks only the second Magnetic Fields album since that groundbreaking release—and, in some ways, it represents a polar opposite side of Merritt's songwriting. Whereas 69 Love Songs was meticulous and featured an array of unusual instrumentation, Distortion serves as a salute to the steady signature sound of The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Yes, Merritt, who suffers from a medical condition that causes him to be atypically sensitive to loud noise, fell in love with feedback—and not just guitar feedback, but piano feedback. The resulting wall of sound would make Phil Spector nod with approval—and speaking of shady characters, there's a reliable assortment of them on Distortion, including a nun daydreaming of porno stardom ("The Nun's Litany") and a necrophiliac celebrating his "Zombie Boy." The fabulous murder fantasy "California Girls" sounds downright giddy, a vicious and—depending on your sensibilities—quite funny attempt at turning the Brian Wilson template on its head.
With such a brisk run time (13 songs in under 39 minutes), the affected JAMC production style doesn't grate or wear out its welcome, despite sporadic lulls in momentum ("Xavier Says," "Till The Bitter End"). The concept for Distortion involves the imposition of limitations, but part of Merritt's gift as a songwriter involves his success with adventure.
One of his other strengths is the ability to create a memorable turn of phrase, and all the feedback doesn't obscure that. The rollicking "Too Drunk to Dream" is a highlight, its toe-tapping melody and clever contrasts of drunken life with sober life all juxtaposed with Morrissey-sized misery. Of the slower songs, "Old Fools" in particular resonates—it's a gloomy but poignant ballad in which Merritt switches to his surprisingly supple baritone in order to bemoan "old fools that believe that they can dance and sing and fall in love."