By: Will Lamborn

Many of Stephin Merritt’s musical projects are bound by a theme, perhaps the most ambitious and widely recognized being 1999’s glorious 69 Love Songs.  His last album under the Magnetic Fields moniker was composed entirely of songs beginning with the letter i (2004), and even some earlier records like The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994) closely followed a conceptual narrative.  As the title so simply suggests, Distortion, Merritt’s newest release with the Magnetic Fields (his other projects include the Gothic Archies, the 6ths, and the Future Bible Heroes), trades in pop songs submerged in My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain levels of feedback and noise.  Merritt has said that he wanted Distortion to sound more like Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain itself, and the thirteen songs on Distortion certainly share Psychocandy’s (1985) affinity for great pop songs adrift in a sea of drony guitars.  The melodies and lyrics, however, retain Merritt’s distinctive style, and as a result the album becomes an interesting experiment in placing Magnetic Fields songs in a new musical setting.  The songs are more than sufficiently their own to avoid any aping succumbed to by imitators worshipping at the altar of guitar fuzz in the early nineties.

Distortion - The Magnetic Fields

Unlike the eclectic popular music sampling of 69 Love Songs, here the instrumentation is intentionally consistent throughout, providing a sonic coherence in keeping with the record’s central conceit.  Just about everything is, of course, distorted, and that means not just the guitars.  The piano heard throughout is made to feed back through a maxed-out amp placed against the frame.  Feedback cello and even a distorted accordion combine with the overdriven guitars to complete Distortion’s sound.  Only the drums escape untreated, though they were recorded in a tiled hallway leading towards a stairwell 17 stories deep to naturally give them the appropriate dose of reverb and bombast.

Splitting vocal duties 50/50 with Merritt is Shirley Simms, a longtime friend who lent her voice to several tunes on 69 Love Songs.  Merritt sought her out once again because her voice, he says, is “as pop as it gets”, much more so than his own, and thus especially suitable for Distortion.  Simms was indeed great choice.  Her inclusion arguably makes the album, and at the very least results in many of its most enjoyable songs.  The fuzzed-out background blends incredibly warmly with her voice and the layered background harmonies.  “California Girls” epitomizes Distortion’s approach at its best; feedback levels high enough to make a dedicated shoegazer blush and formidable pop chops to boot.

The Magnetic Fields
PHOTO: Chris Buck

It also doesn’t hurt that Merritt’s acerbic wit and humor, equal parts misanthropic and hopelessly romantic, is out in full force.  In “California Girls”, Simms entertains a revenge fantasy on the titular beauties of The Beach Boys’ iconic song, while singing in the same unmistakable style Brian Wilson and company made famous.  “Too Drunk To Dream” will surely provoke pained but irrepressible grins with its outlandish, wounded tale of escapist inebriation and heartbreak, and in “Zombie Boy” desperation finds a solution through reanimating a lost lover.  Merritt is simply doing what he does very well, writing biting yet sincere pop songs, most often from the bittersweet view of those suffering on the losing end of love.  In the best of his lyrics, each line seems predestined to follow the one that came before, not for predictability or cliché but simply because it fits.  There are times, especially with Simms on vocals, when the various elements of Distortion come together with similar cohesion and purpose.  Listeners partial to a softer sounding Magnetic Fields should not despair, as Merritt’s broad-based, multifaceted musical muse will surely continue to take him in interesting and unforeseen directions from here.  And while the noise might be different, the musical core is still unambiguously the Magnetic Fields.


Merritt quotation and paraphrase come directly from the Nonesuch Records website:

Stephin Merritt homepage:
Fields MySpace:


All opinions expressed by Will Lamborn are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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