"...the new record sees him pushing his songbook to extremes in entirely unexpected fashion."
Rating: 8 / 10
Ed Power, 06 Feb 2008
Stephen Merritt has spent his career subverting and dryly parodying the time-worn tropes of indie pop. The misanthropic smarty pants behind the Magnetic Fields (and too many side projects to keep track of) has dabbled in faux-Broadway show-tunes, gothic whimsy and baroque Americana. In 1999, he strained for greatness and nearly pulled it off with 69 Love Songs, a three hour suite of ballads, alt.rock and honky-tonk dirges that, from every imaginable perspective, probed the gooey, intricate business of the human heart.
Distortion is the first new Magnetic Fields collection since 2004’s faintly underwhelming i (the songs were unimpeachable but the LP’s chamber pop framework felt as though it were assembled from 69 Love Songs cast-offs). Described by Merritt as a paean to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s fuzz drenched landmark Psychocandy, the new record sees him pushing his songbook to extremes in entirely unexpected fashion. Every single instrument on Distortion is forced through a feedback loop so that the entire album is marinaded in a angry, squalling din, a never ending tidal crash of noise and confusion.
Merritt shares lead vocals with Shirley Simms, a singer with a wispy '60s style. Sometimes, as on the bitchy Beach Boys riposte ‘California Girls' ('I hate California girls' trills the chorus), her breathy voice struggles against the background cacophony. You suspect this is a strategy on Merritt’s part; like a rose flung on a trash-heap, the sweetness of her delivery is accentuated by the clamorous surroundings.
But Merritt saves the best songs for himself. Steeped in crunching synthesizer, ‘Zombie Boys’ harks back to the Magnetic Fields unheralded early days as a lo-fi new wave act. And on the exuberantly ghoulish anti-Christmas ballad ‘Mr Mistletoe’ he reminds us of his dazzling reach as a lyricist (“Oh, Mr. Mistletoe, wither and die/you useless weed/for no one have I”). How we’ve missed his grumpy genius.