The Magnetic Fields – Distortion (2008): Review


Produced by Stephin Merritt
Label – Nonsuch

It seems that modern music journalism is pre-occupied by comparison. Every essay, review or précis endeavours to find the musical equivalent from a given musical era, the mean root to the creative formula that surfaces on any given new release. Early press reports for Stephin Merritt’s latest recording were that it was an amalgam of Jesus & Mary Chain maudlin drones and Phil Spector’s kaleidoscopic “Wall Of Sound” textures. Frankly, these direct links do the final product a great disservice; the links are vaguely tenuous, lazy, simplistic attempts by the media to conjure up a ‘feel’ for what’s in store. “Distortion”, Merritt’s 8th full release is a glittering star shower of deeply original Pop artefacts, echoed sparks of white light that puncture our atmosphere like that distant ray of sunlight one sees in a sky full of dark clouds. It’s almost childlike in its sonic imagery, simple melodies, distorted by echo, fuzz and feedback, perfectly exemplified by the instrumental opener “Three Way” which endearingly sounds like the theme to a 60’s kids show; a resemblance that reminds one of his Lemony Snicket series.


With “California Girls”, Merritt’s lyrics swipe scathingly via the sweet tones of Shirley Simms, all played over an almost apologetic West Coast Pop backing that frankly, the ‘hated’ California Girls could only love. The tempo slows down for the contemplative “Old Fools” where Merritt plunges his lonely baritone to the deepest, darkest depths. Indeed, the slower, more reflective numbers captivate the listener most of all, particularly Simms’ melancholic “Drive on Driver”, and the serene closer “Courtesans”. Merritt isn’t short on black humour either, “Too Drunk To Dream” bemoans the power of the bottle to the “shit faced” victim and even funnier, “The Nun’s Litany” is the literary dream of the tempted servant of The Lord who wishes “I want to be a topless waitress; I want my mother to shed one tear”. It’s all charmingly irreverent, mainstream Pop with a wry splash of experimental fluidity echoing through every tinny rhythm, every distorted Guitar scratch, every weird synth sound.

Stephin Merritt has a genuine claim to be one of the most evocative Pop practitioners around, and “Distortion” only reaffirms his incredible skill. If you thought mainstream pop was a well worn concrete road, grey, cold and uninviting, then let Magnetic Fields lead you off the beaten path through a meadow of bright colours, warm, and inviting sonic textures.


Track Listing
1.”Three-Way” – 3:01
2.”California Girls” – 3:00
3.”Old Fools” – 3:02
4.”Xavier Says” – 2:42
5.”Mr. Mistletoe” – 2:59
6.”Please Stop Dancing” – 3:01
7.”Drive On, Driver” – 2:51
8.”Too Drunk to Dream” – 3:00
9.”Till the Bitter End” – 3:03
10.”I’ll Dream Alone” – 3:08
11.”The Nun’s Litany” – 2:58
12.”Zombie Boy” – 3:05
13.”Courtesans” – 2:59

California Girls

Old Fools

Drive On, Driver

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