Stephin Merritt seems to function best within self-imposed confines, whether it’s the overarching concept of 69 Love Songs or the stylistic boundaries of his many musical personae. But he’s never set himself a task quite as determinative as on the Magnetic Fields’ Distortion, whose 13 tracks are characterized by cranked guitars and drums that sound as if they were recorded in the wash of a jet engine. There hasn’t been an album to so diligently marry analog fuzz and insistent melody since the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy.
Given that the Magnetic Fields often seem like two very different bands in the studio and on the stage, it’s not surprising that Distortion‘s static-drenched arrangements reflect that duality: They sound like songs created by a largely acoustic chamber ensemble that were doused after the fact with a thick, warm blanket of sound. The production feels like set dressing, even if the decoration substantially spruces up the joint.
The most transparent Psychocandy descendent, “California Girls,” is built around JAMC’s version of the “Be My Baby” beat and the one-woman girl group of Shirley Simms, whose brassy vocals lend a wry edge to Merritt’s acid lyrics (“They ain’t broke, so they put on airs / The faux folk sans derrières”). “Too Drunk Too Dream,” sung by Merritt, characteristically mixes romanticism and world-weariness, the latter serving, always, as an insufficient defense against the world’s infinite ways of breaking your heart.
Inevitably, the restricted palette starts to feel a tad snug, like a sweater that might still fit if you could just work in some gym time. Or perhaps it’s the suspicion that the distortion’s real function is to serve as sonic stucco, filling in the cracks in an otherwise patchy set of tunes. Pull the thread and they unravel, some revealing a solid body and some a padded skeleton. For Merritt, fortunately, it’s mostly the former.