Stephin Merritt, the maestro of rock veterans The Magnetic Fields, found himself at an artistic crossroads a few years ago. He had grown tired of what rock music had to offer, a feeling perceptibly palpable on The Magnetic Fields’ last two albums -- the conceptually-ambitious opus 69 Love Songs and the organically instrumented and produced i -- as well as on Merritt’s other eclectic musical projects, like the largely acoustic, slightly rock-free, and synth-free pop of The 6ths. Merritt recently explained his musical frustration to Drowned in Sound: “[The Jesus and Mary Chain’s] Psychocandy is the last significant event in popular music production. That’s the last thing I’ve heard which sounds blaringly original. I haven’t heard anything else since then that says, this is a new way of making records.” Apparently, Merritt believes if you cannot equal them, join them. Clearly imbued with a renewed sense of passion for rock music, The Magnetic Fields’ latest release, the aptly titled Distortion, was described by Merritt as an attempt to “sound more like Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain.”
The album’s title is a clear reference to the distorted sonic backdrop that serves as the foundation of each track. Bullish melodies are enveloped with a humming wall of textured sounds, including shrieking feedback, fuzzy guitars, tinny pianos, and reverbed vocals. However, this “distorted” motif has a wider reaching influence. Distortion’s narrative theme is not as unambiguously obvious as those found in 69 Love Songs and i, but the persistent mood and sentiment that pervade the album suggests an overriding premise. This is clearly evident on second track “California Girls,” in which the album's temperament -- cold, acerbic, alienated -- begins to take contour. Shirley Simms, employing a bare, lugubrious delivery, repeatedly declares “I hate California girls.”
With that barbed antidote to the famously blithe Beach Boys track of the same name, the irritated singing and sharp wit, which most memorably mark the album, commences by personifying a desolated row of characters. On the frigid "Mr. Mistletoe," a melancholic narrator, “Mistletoe is everywhere, but you no longer care,” is feeling nihilistic during Christmas season. The bewailing “Too Drunk To Dream” portrays an individual who has befriended Jack D. and Mr. Walker but lost the man of his dreams. Similarly, the sombre “I’ll Dream Alone” finds another character whose dreams have gone unfulfilled (“I guess our little castle/ In the sky just turned to dust/ So I’ll dream alone, that’s showbiz”), while the morbid “Zombie Boy” is literally about falling in love with the dead (“No blood ever drips, when I widen your holes”). It is this ubiquitous distortion of love and dreams that generates the narrative on the album. By coalescing this thematic distortion with the album’s warped, noisy, cacophonous ambience, Merritt creates a solemn and claustrophobic, yet engaging and compelling listening experience.
If Distortion has one fault, it is that the distorted musical production could have been more fully realized and inventive. Little of the music is truly novel, and often the feedback just compliments the rest of the instrumentation, instead of sounding “huge” or “shrieking” as Merritt hoped for. But maybe that, ultimately, was not the goal. If Distortion was primarily intended to duplicate rather than reinvent the Jesus and Mary Chain sound, The Magnetic Fields adroitly achieve their goal. Distortion does not reinvent the wheel of alternative rock, but it may have just started it spinning again.