The Magnetic Fields, while having been around the indie circuit for over 15 years, haven’t gotten much love around the ‘Org, with no reviews in the archives. Plus, when a news post here told of their new album’s stream, it was barely acknowledged and those who did were mostly negative. (Guess who made the first comment!) I, on the other hand, was already a fan and when I heard the first MP3 prior to release and noticed how bandleader Stephin Merritt steered his crew to Jesus and Mary Chain land with the literally titled Distortion, I was psyched.
Stephin Merritt is a dramatic guy who loves a concept. Not a storyline per se, but a set of parameters to guide his songwriting. His breakthrough in the indie world was 1999’s 69 Love Songs, which was a concept in sheer size alone. Noticing the lack of love songs in pop music (uh-huh), Merritt filled a triple-disc album with 23 songs a disc. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know about the group until 2004’s i (boy, that html was weird), but it grabbed me instantly and made my Punknews lists that year. The concept of that record was simple -- all the song titles started with the letter ‘I’ -- but sonically there were parameters, too. Though they had dominated Merritt’s poppy tunes since he started this project in the early `90s, synthesizers were now banned, and furthermore he took a largely acoustic approach including guitar, ukulele, cello, harpsichord, banjo and piano, achieving his own kind of baroque style pop. So needless to say, this new Distortion project was a complete 180 in sound for the group.
Some of those instruments remain, and synths are still banned. You’ll see accordion and cello listed in Distortion’s credits, but you’ll be lucky to find them amidst the fog of fuzz and feedback throughout the album. Pianos plunk through the din and Farfisa organ manages to make its voice heard as well. But other than that it is all guitar, cymbal-less caveman drums and vocals. After taking the last album’s vocals all to himself, Merritt splits duties here with Shirley Simms, who had quite a few tracks on 69.
Simms’s plain yet feminine voice steals the show with the album’s best songs, like the hilariously hateful “California Girls,” which manages to rhyme ‘whirls,’ ‘squirrels’ and ‘dukes and earls’ with ‘girls’ with an addictive melody, also found in the reverby guitar line. “Drive On, Driver” showcases a sweet melody and organ arpeggios and chiming sounds, and a listen on headphones will reveal previously hidden background vocals and panning effects. But my favorite of all is “The Nun’s Litany,” a funny take on how a life of chastity might find you praying for the complete opposite. I’ll just give ya one taste: "I want to be a topless waitress / I want my mother to shed one tear / I’ll throw away this old sedate dress / Slip into something a tad more sheer." Classic.
Merritt saves some humor for himself as well with “Too Drunk to Dream,” with its warmup routine-sounding melody in the intro where he lays down rhymes like "Sober, life is a prison / Shitfaced, it is a blessing / Sober, nobody wants you / Shitfaced, they’re all undressing," and when the song kicks in we get feedback synced with the beat. “Zombie Boy” is another strong track for him, and “Please Stop Dancing” finds the two sharing leads with an appropriate four-on-the-floor dance beat.
However, it takes some time for the album to get in the groove with a poor choice in track listing as Merritt giving his two weakest songs first at-bats. Track three “Old Fools” and five “Mr. Mistletoe” are lumbering ballads that with the clean details of i may have been successful, but here not so much. Merritt redeems himself later on the ballad front with “I’ll Dream Alone,” which finds his baritone soaring to its upper reaches in the chorus.
While the Magnetic Fields are certainly not the first or only current group to be attempting new angles on the noise-pop formula birthed by the Velvet Underground and taken to extremes on Psychocandy, they are the most unexpected group to give it a go. Merritt’s vocal melodies take a theatrically crafted approach that keep it unmistakably his own, and the sonic palette amazingly still fits the tunes. While the group stumbles a couple times in their new shoes -- and despite this early `08 release date -- I’m sure I won’t forget Distortion when it comes time to list the year’s best.