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The Magnetic Fields - Distortion

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Artist: The Magnetic Fields

Album: Distortion

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Jan. 14, 2008

Mordant and perversely romantic songwriter Stephin Merritt is one of those artists you either love or hate. And your opinion probably bears a direct relation to how feel about Morrissey. Both men trade in impossibly clever, deceptively simple sing-alongs about love’s bitter depths and delirious peaks. Merritt’s idiosyncratic pop act The Magnetic Fields have captured many a farouche heart, and for good reason. The group’s magnum opus, the sprawling, three-disc 69 Love Songs, remains a benchmark of tenderly recalcitrant indie-pop. The latest, the crustily erotic Distortion, is nearly its equal. But way shorter.

On the surface, Distortion sounds like an arranged marriage between Jesus & Mary Chain and Phil Spector. It’s denser, noisier and more guitar-laden than any of The Magnetic Fields’ previous releases, and owes more than a little to the reverb-drenched, West Coast pop of yore. It really sucks to have to drag Brian Wilson’s name into yet another review, but the influence is present, particularly in the song “California Girls.” Yes, you read that right. It’s not a cover, but rather an indictment of spoiled and vacuous Left Coast femininity. “I hate California girls,” goes the refrain, sung in Merritt’s nasal, They Might Be Giants-esque tenor. (Contrasted on subsequent cuts by his curdled baritone.)

Merritt’s oddly alluring voice is matched by that of co-crooner (and pianist) Claudia Gonson, who adds a childlike grace to standout cut “Drive on Driver” – a song as soupy as any J&MC number, but with a kind of crystalline poppiness that worms its way into the subconscious.

“Old Fools” is a heartbreaking little number featuring Merritt’s goth-a-bye melodies set to a thrum of fuzzed out guitar and twinkling piano. It’s a bit like old-school Scott Walker interspersed with said performer’s current penchant for aural nebulousness. “Old fools, dancing / Old rules take a backseat to new romancing,” Merritt intones with an affecting lack of irony.

Similarly lovely is “Mistletoe,” which captures the feeling of a Christmas spent in Gotham minus the object of one’s affection. The song evokes images of swollen snowflakes flitting through the sickly yellow pale of a city streetlight. Nice trick.

“Please Stop Dancing,” while catchy, is fairly disposable, but the arch bluster of “Too Drunk to Dream” more than makes up for it. “Sober, life is a prison / Shitfaced, it is a blessing / Sober, nobody wants you / Shitfaced, they’re all undressing,” the nearly a capella intro declares. The rest of the song is an up-tempo, feedback-rife romp about drinking away the memory of…oh, for fuck’s sake, shouldn’t it be obvious by now?

Gonson takes over for the sultry “Till the Bitter End,” which has a first-season Twin Peaks kind of vibe. You know – cherry pie, crushed velvet and the stink of betrayal. Later, she takes the piss out of religious repression with “The Nun’s Litany,” which resembles that joke where three nuns die and go to heaven, only to have God reward them by sending them back to Earth as oversexed temptresses. “I want to be a brothel worker / I’ve always been treated as one / If I could be a backstreet lover / I’d make more money and have more fun,” Gonson plainly sings. Porno starlet and dominatrix are also among her employment aspirations.

I’m not completely sure, but I think “Zombie Boy” is about a Jeffery Dahmer-type relationship – the kind that involves DIY lobotomies and total sexual obedience. Or at least necrophilia. I’m thinking Boy George should cover it on his comeback album, with a guest appearance from Marc Almond.

Ah, it’s great to have The Magnetic Fields back.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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