The Magnetic Fields

"Distortion" (Nonesuch) - 4 stars

It’s virtually impossible to talk about The Magnetic Fields, the main musical vehicle for crooning NYC songwriter Stephen Merritt, without mentioning their calling card, 1999’s staggering “69 Love Songs.” With that album, Merritt gave birth to a project that so perfectly matched its ambitions, both through its flawless melodies and its irresistible sense of irony, that every work of his before or since has fallen in its shadow. Naturally, and perhaps intentionally, 2004’s “i” disappointed, with its tacked-on concept and lack of consistently interesting material. Now, the Fields return with “Distortion,” an album with a guitar-heavy, feedback-sheathed sound that’s inspired by the work of The Jesus and Mary Chain. The similarities with the Chain are limited to the atmosphere, however, and the omnipresent distortion adds merely another interesting twist to songs that dwell in familiar structural and lyrical territory. While “Distortion” ultimately hesitates to ascend either to the melodic or satiric heights of the Fields’ magnum opus, it presents an innovative new context for Merritt’s smirking brand of indie pop.Album-opener “Three-Way” jumps off with jangling fury, bursting to life with a shimmering lead keyboard and dueling guitars on a fuzzed-out new-wave riff. The instrumental din is completed by the echo of a toxic chromium scrape at the back of the mix, interrupted only by the chorus, a gregarious proclamation of the title.On previous albums, Merritt’s lyrics poked fun at contemporary conceptions of sex. “Distortion,” however, pushes those levels beyond the absurd and into the downright Freudian, with characters that indulge admittedly confused desires for sex and death in equal (and sometimes identical) measure. “California Girls,” an infectious pop guitar-wash featuring vocals from Shirley Simms, turns from antipathy for synthetic O.C. ditzes to an axe-wielding thirst for bimbo blood. “The Nun’s Litany,” a bouncing bit of angelic gloss, elaborates on the various (and explicit) ways a woman of the cloth wishes to violate her vows to spite her mother. “Zombie Boy,” a silly shot at sinister post-punk, features Merritt courting an undead paramour.Aside from the perennial envelope pushing, “Distortion” boasts quite a few otherwise solid tunes. “Old Fools” finds Merritt lamenting the past and regretting the future, all to cathartic piano lines that belong at the end of some charmingly schmaltzy John Hughes film. The churning, guitar-warped exchange between Simms and Merritt that composes “Please Stop Dancing,” the desperately gleeful bender-banter on “Too Drunk to Dream,” and the hopelessly defiant crescendo of “I’ll Dream Alone” project a moving triptych of the death of the relationship, and, taken individually, make for some of the album’s finest songs.But “Distortion” has a few notable flaws. While Simms’ unassumingly beautiful voice can generally be counted on to carry listeners through the least-inspired of Merritt’s lyrics, the boring melodies of “Courtesans” renders it an unremarkable finish to a remarkable comeback album. “Zombie Boy,” for all its weirdo-appeal, is choppy and dumb, and a second listening doesn’t pay off. Perhaps the most glaring misstep with “Distortion” is that it continues Merritt’s obsession with the concept album: his commitment to an explicit theme can hinder as much as it enhances. “Mr. Mistletoe” may be a genuinely Christmas-y tune at its core, but it’s hard to tell from beneath the layers of white noise. “Drive On, Driver,” a soaring, triumphant standout, should have been Simms’ version of VU’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” with a melody that begs for the careful instrumentation of the Fields’ earlier albums. Instead, it takes a static-bath along with the likes of “Xavier Says,” a less-clever, less-catchy number whose weak melody and unintelligible lyrics probably would have kept it off the album if they weren’t hiding behind a wall of sound. Until the a cappella opening of “Too Drunk to Dream,” the feedback is unrelenting, and despite the highs and lows, the album as a whole tends to drone. This may have worked flawlessly if the year was 1991, and the album was called “Loveless,” but My Bloody Valentine they most certainly are not.Grievances of experimentation aside, Merritt and company have put together a strong collection of songs. “Distortion” not only redeems the introversion of “i,” but stands up to some of the especially grand moments of “69 Love Songs.”—Reviewer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.

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