Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It's All Gone Hazy....

The Magnetic Fields – Distortion

Much critical consternation has been prompted by Stephin Merritt’s typically flippant comment that the raison d’etre of the new Magnetic Fields album was ‘to sound more like The Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain’. So, is ‘Distortion’ a pointless cut and paste job or a worthy addition to the Magnetic Fields catalogue?

There are two things worth recognising at the outset. First, whilst Merritt has recently focussed on conceptual rather than sonic conceits, this is not the first time he’s devised an album around a particular style of music. ‘The Charm of The Highway Strip’ took the spirit and themes of country music, and reconstructed the genre using very non-country sounding instrumentation. It’s also immediately obvious that there is something here that prevents ‘Distortion’ from merely being an homage to The Jesus and Mary Chain. Whilst that band certainly patented a template of lo-fi, fuzzy psychedelic pop, they were always as remarkable for their dour and humourless demeanour. Merritt’s characteristic irony continues to run riot here, and the best songs have that great combination of biting wit and sympathetic insight that unites all his work under a variety of monikers.

The album opens brilliantly, with the mischievous, semi-instrumental ‘Three-Way’ actually more closely resembling the late-60s garage rock explosion than anything the Mary Chain produced. Then there’s ‘California Girls’, a subversion of The Beach Boys’ surf-aesthetic that is as dry as a desert (‘They ain’t broke, so they put on airs/The faux folk sans derrieres/They breathe coke and they have affairs/With each passing rock star…’). It’s perhaps too easy a target for Merritt’s gleeful wrath, but it’s still an enjoyably savage indictment. Particularly amusing is the decidedly American pronunciation of ‘sans’ and the butchering of ‘squirrels’ to sound like ‘squirls’, purely so it rhymes with the song’s title! Then there’s the more languid, melancholy and drowsy ‘Old Fools’, which is more typical of the rest of the album. It features some very clever phrasing in Merritt’s vocal which suggests that critics arguing that Merritt has abandoned his preoccupation for musical theatre in favour of a return to basic indie-rock simply aren’t looking hard enough for the common threads in his work.

All these songs are characterised not just by the distortion of the album’s title, but also by rudimentary, pounding drums and thin, intentionally under-developed production values. There’s a spell in the middle of the album where this sound is put to particularly effective use. ‘Distortion’ reunites Merritt with vocalist Shirley Simms, who last appeared on his magnum opus ’69 Love Songs’, and it benefits from the vocal contrast. She’s especially impressive on ‘Drive On, Driver’, which seems to relocate Loretta Lynn in 1980s Glasgow, all its edges fuzzy and blurred. Simms also relishes the prospect of singing the album’s sublimely ridiculous highlight – ‘The Nun’s Litany’. Juiced with heavy irony, the song pokes fun at the selling of bodies, whilst also capturing a thinly-veiled melancholy (‘I should be good at spin the bottle, while I’ve still got something left to sell’).

Of the songs which Merritt himself sings, best of all is the delightful ‘Too Drunk To Dream’. Merritt’s exercises his brilliant mind by making this song actually sound drunk. This is Merritt at his very best, combining a poignancy to which anyone who has ever endured unrequited love or a break-up can easily relate with the kind of self-mocking hilarity which renders such situations absurd.

If there’s a problem with ‘Distortion’, it’s that this more playful element of Merritt’s song-craft is sometimes obscured by the album’s murky atmosphere and mostly leaden pace. Songs like ‘Xavier Says’ and ‘Till The Bitter End’, whilst having pretty enough melodies, actually sound rather apathetic and nondescript. I’m also a little agnostic about the repetitive, somewhat undeveloped ‘Please Stop Dancing’. The approach is more apposite when the languid, ponderous nature of the songs is exaggerated for comic effect, such as the marvellous ‘Mr. Mistletoe’ or ‘I’ll Dream Alone’.

There’s no doubt that the preoccupation with ragged, undefined noise inevitably makes ‘Distortion’ more one-dimensional than any of its predecessors. Listening to it, I can’t help yearning for slightly more variety. Yet within the background squall, there’s a vivid attention to detail which is entirely characteristic of Merritt. There’s also plenty of inspiration beyond the world of grubby indie, suggesting that Merritt is quite capable of filtering his love of camp pop and musical theatre through increasingly unexpected methods.

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