Saturday, January 1, 2011
The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (2008)
It stands to reason in our perverse musical universe that one of the landmark shoegaze albums of recent years was written and recorded by a man who finds guitar noise intolerable, who typically resents the din of fuzzed-out rock music. In fact, when Stephin Merritt saw Superchunk cover his early track "100,000 Fireflies" in the early '90s, he was mortified; that didn't stop him from signing the Magnetic Fields to Superchunk's label, Merge, and maybe he absorbed some of their rough edges. In the early 2000s, the Fields joined a major label and began a "no-synth" trilogy, opening it with the surprisingly conventional pop record i. The sequel, Distortion, turned out to be a major change of pace for Merritt; it could be that its inventive sound and atypically aggressive demeanor were simply the result of brainstorming for keyboard avoidance tactics, but whatever the reason, Merritt injects the harsher corners of alternative rock with some of his most classicist, audaciously pretty Irving Berlin-derived pseudo-standards to date. It hasn't been done before, and it doesn't sound like anything else, in his catalog or outside of it. The juxtaposition alone is frequently stunning, but on top of that, these are the best songs he's put down since 69.
Speaking of which, two of the sixty-nine love songs offer some degree of precedent for Distortion. The one-off joke cut "Punk Love" is the direct antecedent to the more carefully composed mission statement "Three-Way." But more importantly, Merritt's first flirtation with meaty, vaguely sinister guitar hooks on "Underwear" provides a transitional moment for the band before diving into the deep end of pedals and feedback for Distortion. What's most impressive is that the Magnetic Fields don't tentatively stab at shoegaze and fuzz, or make fun of it, they actually burst into it full-bore and craft an utterly convincing, achingly loud torrent of noise and tremor.
Some were no doubt disappointed that only a couple of times does the songwriting bend to the production style; not much here is any angrier or bawdier than the average Magnetic Fields track, nor does it attain the mystery and buried vocals traditional to its aspired genre, but the album's all the better for it. The exceptions do stand out, though. Opener "Three-Way" shouts and chirps along like space age surround-sound Replacements, "Too Drunk to Dream" features an atypically brash Merritt listing the advantages of being "shitfaced," but best of all is the magically malicious "California Girls," an instant classic sung by Shirley Simms. Flipping clichés back and forward and back again, the song is a vicious and unfair attack on the same location-fortunate young ladies unfairly propped up decades ago by the Beach Boys. Merritt filters hatred, resentment, even murder through his unflappably melodic pen; Simms gives it a loyal gung ho. It's a rock & roll masterstroke.
The innovation, however, lies elsewhere, on material like "Please Stop Dancing," "The Nun's Litany," and especially "Drive On, Driver," all stunning compositions; their marriage to aural inferno seems like an ill fit until you hear the sarcasm, immense emotion, and endless confusion of Merritt and Claudia Gonson's vocals cracking through the cacophony like a glimpse of distant warmth. It amplifies these songs not just in the gimmicky, forced sense but in the beauty and intensity of feeling that's always been buried in Merritt's work. Unlike on the still awkward and distant i, the Magnetic Fields here offer some stirring and poetic, and at times gorgeous, human moments.
Merritt always casts silly limitations and rules over his projects, perhaps some hanging left brain cell that must intrude on his work, and it often provides unlikely inspiration. Because he insisted that the thirteen songs on Distortion were to hover around three minutes, the album flies by; its only out-of-place moment is the misplaced, overly goofy "Zombie Boy." Most of the remaining songs stand proudly with the band's '90s work. And there's even a Christmas song in the My Bloody Valentine meets Frank Sinatra style, "Mr. Mistletoe."
Realism, the followup to Distortion, has equally brilliant songs but doesn't stick in the mind as long; that's because Distortion is a textbook example of how a band in its nineteenth year stays young. It is a new page turned, an experiment, a group of people having a blast despite not really knowing quite what they're doing -- again. The Magnetic Fields really need keyboards; they're a keyboard band that wrings head-spinning noise out of synths, and that element has been missing in the last ten years, but Realism could have come along at any point in the band's career because their sound is already predisposed to work in a folk music environment. (The tour behind Distortion saw them strip the songs to acoustic arrangements.) Distortion is something altogether different. Merritt's too excellent a songwriter to really need to stretch like this, but it's a thrill to hear him do it and achieve something this impressive.