Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields have a penchant for gimmickry. They also have a way of creating loony, simplistic album concepts, effortlessly packaged with witty, mordant lyricism and theatrical pop melodies. For years, they’ve put out music that’s jokingly self-aware, but deceptively smart in its orchestration. And it all starts with the album title. The band’s 1999 release – aptly titled 69 Love Songs – deconstructed romance’s falsities and truths. Its next release, i, was as introspective as the title suggests, with each track beginning with the subject “I.” Distortion continues this trend by filling up each track’s background space with, you guessed it, distortion. But on this album, the Magnetic Fields drops the gimicks, creating a more friendly sound while downplaying some of the idiosyncrasies that made the band so appealing in the first place.
The opener, “Three-Way,” is a coasting pop number that layers surf guitar over a Pixies-esque melody. The band shouts “three way!” every minute of the song, echoing Danny Flores and his shouts of “tequila” from the ’50s. The most recognizable part of the band, Stephin Merritt’s wry baritone, doesn’t kick in until the third track. But on the plodding number “Old Fools,” we hear for the first time how Merritt’s voice matches up with the cascading background distortion. The problem with filling up the usually clear space around Merritt’s lyrics is that it adds another monotone hum to Merritt’s enchanting, unvarying croon.
Merritt’s lyrics have always attracted the most attention for the Magnetic Fields and while they aren’t at the forefront of Distortion, there’s no lack of lyrical cleverness here. “Too Drunk to Dream” offers sarcastically twisted love (life?) advice that might contain hints of Zen philosophy: “Sober, life is a prison / Shitfaced it is a blessing / Sober, nobody wants you / Shitfaced they’re all undressing / Oh sober, it’s ever darker / Shitfaced the moon is nearer / Sober, you’re old and ugly / Shitfaced, who needs a mirror.”
However, it’s hard to maintain the level of wit and intelligence that the band incorporates into its songwriting over the course of an entire album. “California Girls” is bouncy, innocuous fun, but its lyrics lose their edge in the shadow of other tracks. But the real vocal triumphs of the album are found on songs like “Please Stop Dancing” and “The Nun’s Litany,” where Shirley Simms’s voice meshes fluidly with the instrumentation for a soporific, dream-like effect. “Xavier Says” is equally wistful, adding semi-tropical instrumentation to the wall of sound.
Past Magnetic Fields albums had a tendency to divide audiences. People either love the band’s baroque pop and Merritt’s antics, or they hate them. With a more straightforward sound that incorporates more 1960s and 1990s pop rock elements, Distortion is more accessible. Unfortunately, the album loses some of the band’s playful quirkiness in the process. Its earlier records are full of flamboyant dramatics and pessimistic ballads – songs about dog leashes and bitterness toward the moon – and a never-ending catalogue of love songs. For some fans, Distortion might be frustrating in its conformity. But for others, putting a leash on Merritt and the band’s eccentric inclinations might be leading the group in the right direction.
Three of five stars