The Magnetic Fields - Distortion

Cam 13/01/2008

Rating: 4/5

Damned be the day in which Stephin Merritt foolishly proclaimed that the concept for the next Magnetic Fields album was to “sound more Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain”. Now his utterly ridiculous words haunt him in every review and are even used as malign weapons for any cynic who intends to deny the pop-tastic features of Distortion, the eight (or tenth if you get geeky about it) LP recorded by the already-legendary New Yorkers.
The fact is that if it wasn't for a moderate use of feedback (without it being as dominating as it is on Psychocandy), any comparison with the recently reunited Scots would be limited to how both bands seem to create effortless pieces of perfect pop. The impulsive and even aggressive sound of the Mary Chain is nowhere to be found in Distortion's conscious attempt to explore the sometimes abused world of proto-shoegazing. Sorry Stephin, mission failed... thankfully.

After all, an immeasurable amount of American bands owe part of their sound to the Magnetic Fields and the last thing they should be doing is copying the already venerated trademarks of other influential Indie totems. 'Three-way' kicks off the record without many pretensions or manifestos, only a few words (two, actually) and a sound that would have fitted nicely with last years' wave of dreamy pop. This is rapidly followed by 'California Girls' - the antithesis of the Beach Boys' 1965 ode to feminine standardisation -, musically not too far from Brian Wilson, it's here where the playfully dark lyrics of Distortion start with a ravishing protest/death threat against The O.C. and surrounding areas.

'Old Fools' puts Merritt's well known crooning to the test, and to a certain point, his deluded voice can be the most irritating thing in the record. We already have more worthy heirs to Scott Walker's and Roy Orbison's respective thrones and consequently, the bass vocals of the diminutive singer are relegated to be lifeless slaves of his tragicomic lyrics. This is probably why 'Mr. Mistletoe' fails as miserably as David Bowie and Bing Crosby's 'Little Drummer Boy'. It's only with the tracks that feature the voice of eternal MF collaborator Shirley Simms that Distortion can breathe. Amidst the feedback, her vocals can be heard as a mixture of Cocteau Twins' Liz Frazer ('Drive On Driver') and 70's cult songstress Jeanette ('Till The Bitter End'), bringing a needed balance to what would otherwise be a tiring record.

Coming back to the lyrics written by the gnomish hero of thousands of blogs, 'Too Drunk To Dream' is a hilarious, ironic sonnet that succeeds in its quest to steal laughs without being overtly ridiculous while describing that most uncontrollable of states. It seems the key is in saying the horrible truth without being patronising. As a sort of feminine counterpart, 'The Nun's Litany' is yet another picaresque nursery rhyme with more than one unforgettable phrase, but for now: “I want to be a topless waitress / I want my mother to shed one tear” stands triumphant.

None of the tracks are longer than three minutes and ten seconds, that's one of the few constant routines in Stephin Merritt's world, and probably what he and his band should stick to: creating pop albums full of short and sweet tunes with more than one hook and unexpected lyrics that deserve to be part of the mainstream of another dimension. At the end of the day and without making silly comparisons, The Magnetic Fields prove to be a concept themselves, and as such, a central part of America's Indie Pop Olympus.