Since Stephin Merritt’s Magnetic Fields released their magnum opus, 1999’s 69 Love Songs, I’ve always wanted them to record another song like “When My Boy Walks Down the Street.” While retaining every ounce of Merritt’s theatrical, super-catchy songwriting style, that tune had a bit more distortion and reverb, just adding a little touch of noise rock to the group’s perfect, classic songwriting style. Don’t get me wrong, their early synth-flavored new wave material was pretty wonderful as well, but Merritt & Co. had already done a few albums of that, not to mention albums recorded with The 6ths or Future Bible Heroes. I was ready to hear The Magnetic Fields rock.
Merritt, too, must have wanted to write more songs like “When My Boy Walks Down The Street,” because The Magnetic Fields’ first new album in four years, Distortion, is 13 such tracks in the vein of that 69 Love Songs highlight. However, these songs are even more exaggerated in their distorted approach. The noise is cranked up high, the reverb cavernous, making each track sound like Merritt had handed instrumental duties over to the Jesus & Mary Chain.
While this newfound relationship between The Magnetic Fields and noise comes as something of a jolt to those who look back fondly upon the days when The Magnetic Fields had more in common with OMD. When Distortion leaked, it was met with both excitement and disappointment. There were those who lauded the group for diving into a completely new realm, while others doubted whether this was the proper realm in which to dive. Divisive though the album may be, it’s yet another welcome addition to the Magnetic Fields canon, with a great set of pop songs like only Merritt can write.
The album opens with “Three-Way,” an instrumental (save for a shout of the title) surf-rocker that sets the tone for the album with a bit of energy and a lot of distortion. It’s a fun diversion, which gives way to second track “California Girls,” a beefed up and buoyant pop tune with the biggest hooks on the album. Claudia Gonson delivers disses like “they breathe coke and they have affairs” before chirping the refrain, “I hate California girls.” “Old Fools” is yet another immense wall of sound, backing Merrit’s voice, which fits perfectly, his lazy, bassy tone juxtaposed against the squealing, back feeding clangs.
“Xavier Says” is melodically stunning, and rather than coming off as JAMC homage, sounds more like a lost single from the shoegazer era (there is a difference, by the way). Though the distortion is as present as ever, “Please Stop Dancing” sounds lighter than air, the noise creating a paradoxically gauzy ambience that, in all of its swirling soupiness, becomes more like a fog than a hailstorm. “Drive On, Driver” has a rootsier feel than any of the other tracks, while “Too Drunk To Dream” gallops with carefree rock `n’ roll abandon, while throwing the word `shitfaced’ in as many times as possible. “The Nun’s Litany” is the record’s peak, an outstanding pop revelation with noise cuddling up to organ, offsetting some of the distortion for a bit more clarity. It proves that the overdrive may work best in moderation, after all.
Whether overbearing or subtle, the distortion on Distortion is an interesting new aesthetic for The Magnetic Fields. Not everyone will fall in love with this new, fuzzier sound, and it makes sense. The Magnetic Fields have always been a crisp and neat pop group with each note firmly where it should be, and certainly not buried under waves of effects. That doesn’t mean they have to stay that way, and by the time the next album comes out, they’ll have an entirely new style to try out. Until then, this is just proof that they can try something completely out of character and not only own it, but make it sound awfully good in the process.
The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy
Yo La Tengo – Painful
Unrest – Perfect Teeth
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.