It’s been four years since Stephen Merritt’s troupe has released a new concept album. The self-centered I (2004) contained all songs with the personal pronoun in the title, and the career-establishing 69 Love Songs (1999) contained sixty-nine songs related to love. Can you guess the concept behind Distortion?
No, it’s not a remake of Rev Run’s 2005 album of the same title; rather all the instruments on Distortion purposely feed back, meaning some of an instruments’ output is included in its input. This circularity makes such an idea somewhat more interesting and significant. Merritt, however, always keeps the reasoning behind his concepts simple.
He named Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1985 debut, Psychocandy, as inspiration and, thus, has enabled a direct comparison between the two. The Magnetic Fields are not Jesus and Mary Chain, and to attempt “to sound more like Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain does” seems like a futile goal, one that’s reserved only for state-fair cover bands. Distortion fails in that regard, but it is successful in other ways. Unlike Psychocandy’s amateurish lyrics, Merritt is able to construct a heavy yet catchy pop album with both a light and dark side.
He seems to appreciate artists who do not stagnate, but also realizes that freshness does not require reinvention. Small tweaks are acceptable. The instruments are the usual Magnetic Fields ensemble: piano, guitar, cello, accordion. Oddly enough, heavy distortion seems to make for a lighter, more playful Magnetic Fields album. Vocal duties are shared with Shirley Simms (who also appeared on 69); she sings about her hate for “California girls” who “breathe coke and . . . have affairs with each passing rock star.” The clever Merrit is here, only distorted.
The Magnetic Fields’ stab at power pop begins with the near instrumental opener, “Three-Way.” By focusing on sound rather than content, Merritt assumingly freed up his songwriting to include more than usual comical, misanthropic love songs. Due to the heavy droning, however, lyrics at times hide rather than stray from the norm. This is a good thing, considering the affinity for mono-toned Merritt is limited, especially on a self-proclaimed pop album. Listening closely, though, reveals the same Merritt gift for pop-perfect lyrics. “Too Drunk to Dream” begins, “Sober, life is a prison/ Shit-faced, it is a blessing.”
The lightness, even with the same downtrodden lyrics, comes from the upbeat arrangements that find their way through the slosh of feedback — an appropriate sound for lyrics that evoke the same feeling — sloshing through the everyday. Perhaps Merritt realizes that to be comically self-loathing or misanthropic is, perhaps, all a person can ask for.