Album Review: The Magnetic Fields, Distortion

Distortion[From Room Thirteen, January 16, 2008]

Another of the numerous outlets for indie-rock Svengali Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields’ Distortion continues the group’s new tradition of self-referentially titled theme albums by turning up the fuzz on nearly every element of this one’s outstanding 38 minutes.

Abandoning nearly all of the guitar-and-string tactics on 2004’s i, Distortion instead finds Merritt and company paying nod after nod to classic 1950’s and 1960’s pop in equal amounts as they do to some of the finer electro-pop to come out of the 1980’s. “California Girls,” most obviously, makes a direct and unflinching counterpoint to the Beach Boys classic with occasional second vocalist Shirley Simms’ stepping front and center to take what could be politely called a slightly less enthusiastic stance towards those West Coast ladies: “I will stand behind their backs / With my brand new battle axe / And will they taste my wrath / I hate California girls.”

And this, for the most part, is The Magnetic Fields’ recipe: a dash of surf guitar here, a pinch of highly processed percussion loops there, throw in some snarky lyrics about booze and broken hearts, and let the whole thing simmer with undying love for three minutes’ worth of hooks. While countless other bands take their shots at vague, lofty, somewhat pretentious ideals like taking music to the next level, Merritt’s operation famously takes a more direct approach: “to sound more like The Jesus And Mary Chain than The Jesus And Mary Chain.”

They don’t, of course, but sentiments like that should let you know exactly what this album is about. Start with something good, then do more of what works. Interestingly, the band employed a very strict and (for this age of computerised performing and recording, anyway) adventurous rule of “no synths.” Whether this is the group’s blatant rebellion against modern pop machines or a nod to heavyweights past is open to interpretation, but Distortion‘s perpetual “this + that” method suggest it’s at least a little bit of both.

Stylistically, the songs are quite the mixed bag. Opener “Three-Way” sounds almost like a Go! Team outtake, while “Drive On, Driver” subtly hints in a not-so-subtle fashion at an alternate universe where REO Speedwagon vocalist Kevin Cronin shares a band with Jesu’s Justin Broadrick. This may sound ridiculous, but this is what The Magnetic Fields do best, and their masterful execution are what make stabs like these – and most everything else on Distortion – work almost flawlessly. This album won’t make them famous, but if there’s any comfort in crafting a true work of art then The Magnetic Fields can surely take it.