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'Distortion' by The Magnetic Fields
  • 'Distortion' by The Magnetic Fields

CD by The Magnetic Fields.

Nonesuch Records

Distortion is supposed to be Stephen Merritt's take on the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy.This from Merritt himself, who's been touting J&MC's 1985 masterpiece as the last good pop album ever made in recent interviews. (Maybe he never heard Radiohead. Or Oasis. Or Nirvana. Or the Postal Service. Or ...) Not only is Merritt's claim — that Distortion is his Psychocandy — misleading, it's obnoxious and wrong.

Obnoxious because Merritt, himself a former music critic, should know better than to drop that kind of chestnut into music writers' laps, thus dooming the album never to be evaluated on its own merit (e.g., this review, smarty-pants). Wrong because super-distorted, super-reverby guitars and drums can't change what Magnetic Fields songs have always been: pure, aspartame-sweet, short, dirty, perfect pop that couldn't possibly come from anyone else but the cranky, recalcitrant and sentimental Merritt himself.

Merritt's songwriting genius is his ability to create well-rounded characters with a modicum of explanation or set-up — he's able to evoke whole scenes and landscapes with only a few deft sentences. "The Nun's Litany" does this best. An instant classic, the song never mentions its titular protagonist, who longingly lists occupations she'd like to try: Playboy model, exotic dancer, topless waitress. Of course, Merritt's chief concern has always been love (he did write 69 songs about it, you know), and he does the unrequited kind best. "Please Stop Dancing" is another tragic kiss-off to a relationship that could never work.

Yes, there's a lot of feedback and wall-of-sound production on Distortion (and a lot of, guhhh, distortion), and consequently a lot more going on than on the 2004 Magnetic Fields album,i, which makes the new record a more challenging and engaging listen. But Merritt loves melodies and lyrics more than he loves noise, so vocals — Merritt's flat, warm baritone and Claudia Gonson's rich, warm alto — remain front and center, except on the puzzling surf-rock instrumental opener, "Three-Way." Everything else that makes the Magnetic Fields a good band is still present: Broadway melodies, strummy guitars, bouncy riffs and harmonies. It's all just buried, snugly, in the reverb.

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