The Magnetic Fields | Distortion (Nonesuch)

cd_magnetic-fields.jpgSonically, Distortion is about as much of a 180 as one could expect after the quiet, acoustic chamber pop of the band’s previous effort, i.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a well known fact among fans of the Magnetic Fields that Stephin Merritt is one of the cleverest, if not outright funniest, songwriters on the block today. So when he announced that he planned to make an album that sounded "more like the Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain," it was evident that, while he may have been serious, he was also being mirthfully sarcastic in that sort of unblinking, deadpan style of his that makes you wonder whether or not you were expected to laugh.

Distortion, the Magnetic Fields’ eighth studio album in 18 years, serves up just that: 13 tracks of fuzzy, static-filled, ear-blistering distortion. But beyond the squalls of white noise and primitive caveman drumming, the comparisons to Psychocandy end there. After all, I don’t think William and Jim Reid spent too much time soaking in Cole Porter and music hall or penning wry ballads about courtesans who believe in Santa Claus.

Sonically, Distortion is about as much of a 180 as one could expect after the quiet, acoustic chamber pop of the band’s previous effort, i, which featured 14 songs beginning with the titular letter performed in alphabetical order. But every release by the Magnetic Fields has been informed by its own unique aesthetic—whether it’s analog country or lo-fi bedroom synth pop—and longtime listeners will no doubt note some similarity in the swirling buzz and crackle of earlier releases like The Wayward Bus or The House of Tomorrow EP (Merge). Not only that, but the 69 Love Songs soprano Shirley Simms has been brought back to share in the boy-girl vocal exchanges, and her pristine, innocent delivery is a lovely contrast to Merritt’s dour baritone.

Simms does get to take the lead on some of the album’s highlights, such as on the feedback-fueled twang of "Drive On, Driver" or the maliciously gleeful lead single "California Girls." Her proper schoolgirl enunciation belies the crooked cynicism of Merritt’s lyrics, and nowhere else is this comedic tension played out as well as it is on "The Nun’s Litany" where the song’s do-gooder protagonist dreams of all the sinful things she’d do if she could. She sings, "I want to be a cobra dancer, with little Willie between my thighs/ I may not find a cure for cancer, but I’ll meet plenty of single guys."

While some of the songs Merritt sings may not be as immediately catchy—"Mr. Mistletoe" sounds like a scratchy Gothic Archies outtake and "Zombie Boy" is an out-and-out flop—he remains the moribund heart and soul of the Magnetic Fields, and his verses on the blistering "Too Drunk to Dream" are destined to be quoted by drunk and lonely Lit students for years to come. Despite its flaws and thwarted expectations, Distortion is a remarkable accomplishment of songwriting and it’s quite possibly the band’s best album since The Charm of the Highway Strip, 69 Love Songs notwithstanding. B+ | Todd McKenzie

RIYL: The Jesus and Mary Chain, Randy Newman, the Pet Shop Boys

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