The Magnetic Fields head honcho Stephin Merritt has commented that Distortion‘s peculiar aesthetic—purposely feeding back every non-percussive instrument on the record, including pianos, strings, and accordions—is an attempt to “sound more like Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain.” Why Merritt would choose to mimic the sound of a lesser band whose day in the sun was 20 years ago and who took most of its cues from earlier, greater artists (Phil Spector, Velvet Underground) may have something to do with the relatively lukewarm reception to his post-69 Love Songs output. The subdued i was wonderful but underappreciated, the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes projects were often excellent but perhaps too jokey, and I don’t think anyone actually bought Showtunes. So what’s a mad genius—or a grouchy genius, anyway—to do except pull a Dylan at Newport and make some noise?
The problem is that Merritt’s more of a Sondheim than a Dylan. Any arrangement of his songs that obscures rather than stresses the lyrics or melodies seems to be self-defeating. For that matter, the Magnetic Fields are no Jesus and Mary Chain (or My Bloody Valentine or Ride, for that matter), and rather than craft the feedback into elegant walls of noise the way great shoegaze bands did, the instruments on Distortion just clang together cacophonously. It’s a strange and far from successful motif for a Magnetic Fields album, but it’s also why the Fields sound livelier than any of Merritt’s projects have for years. It really is like as if Sondheim tried to replicate the Jesus and Mary Chain; he wouldn’t get it quite right, but he’d get something right.
And Distortion gets a lot right. First, these are taut, concise pop songs of the ‘60s girl-group and surf-rock variety, and they’re all well served by sticking to a strict three-minute limit. Second, Merritt’s frequent collaborator Shirley Simms, whose reassuring alto handles Merritt’s quirky lyrics better than anyone, sings about half of the record, and Simms’s coo rises quite wonderfully above the din, illuminating Merritt’s greatest strength: his compositions (I doubt anyone will write a more gorgeous melody than the refrain to “Drive On, Driver” for some time). Breakup duet “Please Stop Dancing” is similarly addictive and “The Nun’s Litany” encapsulates just how incredibly dense Merritt’s songs are: It’s an erotic laundry list that’s sexy, hilarious, sad, coy, cute, and probably a dozen other adjectives too. “Litany” is the highlight of a record that no one will mistake for the highlight of Merritt’s discography (that’s still 69 Love Songs), but which is nonetheless a welcome addition.