In ‘Distortion’, The Magnetic Fields’ eighth album, songwriter, singer and producer Stephen Merritt has opted to ditch pure pop and decided instead to wrap his band’s latest effort in unrelenting feedback from start to finish.
He has dabbled in this kind of behaviour before, with the last record ‘i’ consisting of song titles that all started with that letter. This time his compositions are put to a limited amount of instruments, including cello, piano, organ and guitar and further governed by his decree that absolutely no synthesisers be used.
It could have occurred that such strict rules would hamper the output, but they actually help to give ‘Distortion’ a unique sound that successfully unifies virtually all of the tracks without falling into the trap of becoming repetitive. Whether Merritt realises his ambition of sounding ‘more like the Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain’ is another matter entirely.
With catchy tunes sitting easily alongside more downbeat ones, the characters Merritt creates are shrouded in melancholy and/or anger, while lamenting lost love and/or opportunities.
Merritt recently upped sticks from New York to Los Angeles and the relocation doesn’t take long to feature. His contempt for the pristine and promiscuous teenagers who inhabit the City of Angels is outlined in ‘California Girls’. The second track on the album is also noteworthy in that it is the first real chance to hear the vocals of Shirley Simms, who previously collaborated with the band on their three-part 1999 magnum opus ’69 Love Songs’.
Merritt is on record as saying that he had planned to undertake all of the vocal duties. However, discretion was the better part of valour, and Simms offers a pop alternative to Merritt’s mournful tones.
Next up is ‘Old Fools’ where the idea of new-found love in later years and traditional forms of seduction are scorned in equal measure. Merritt and Simms later join forces on the catchy ‘Please Stop Dancing’ where they trade verses to good effect.
The enigmatic Merritt believes this might be his most ‘commercial’ work to date. If that is true then ‘Too Drunk Too Dream’ is the standout anthem. Its lyrics (it starts ‘Sober, life is a prison/S**tfaced it is a blessing’) exalt the numbing effects of alcohol in emotionally challenging times.
While there is no individual track to match previous efforts like ‘Come Back to Francisco’ or ‘100,000 Fireflies’, as a whole ‘Distortion’ garners its strength from its focus. There is one notable exception, however, with ‘Zombie Boy’ out of sync both sonically and thematically with all that surrounds it. Luckily, ‘Courtesans’ - a half-hearted defence of detachment in carnal matters - finishes on the right, albeit melancholic, note.
A must-have for those still coming to terms with a broken relationship.