The Magnetic Fields: Distortion

Really — I tried to get into 69 Love Songs. I was impressed as everyone else that one guy would try write, record and essentially perform three hours of love songs, pared down from the original 100 planned.

At the very least, such an effort ought to be commended. Stephin Merritt wasn’t trying to go for some three-disc prog rock concept album — he just wanted to write 69 love songs.

Reviewers at the time thought the entire set was just pristine, but over time, I’ve found otherwise. I no longer have the albums in my collection because I only ever found about 23 of them very likable.

And thus established my relationship with the Magnetic Fields — a band upon whom I like to check from time to time, but one whose work I don’t actually whip myself into a frenzy to follow. Merritt comes up with some really clever ideas, such as writing songs where all the titles begin with the letter "I". But sometimes, the follow-through is less compelling than the concept, as was the case with said album i, the band’s first for Nonesuch.

Distortion promised an album "more Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain". I’ve had only scant exposure to the Jesus and Mary Chain, so I don’t know how well Merritt keeps his promise. This time, I’m inclined to think the Magnetic Fields deliver the goods.

Distortion is what it says — a clangy, echo-y, noisy mess of guitars, cello, bass and voice, all gloriously wrought to sound barely recognizable.

The Jesus and Mary Chain mastered a sinister mix of bubblegum pop and buzzing guitar work, a combination well suited to Merritt’s morose spin on Tin Pan Alley-inspired pop. His witty couplets feel oddly at home in the all that metallic white noise.

On "California Girls", 69 Love Songs chanteuse Sally Simms visualizes a bloody end to the bottle blondes of tabloid lore. "I will plan my grand attacks," she sings, "I will stand behind their backs with my brand new battle axe."

"I gotta get too pissed to miss you," Merritt sings on "Too Drunk to Dream", extolling the virtues of alcohol in dealing with a broken heart, while on "A Nun’s Litany", Simms takes on the persona of someone fantasizing about a life unhinged. "I want to be a topless dancer," she claims, among other such options.

As with previous Magnetic Fields albums, Merritt manages to write in many styles, but on Distortion, all songs are painted with the same brush, giving the album a clarity not so strongly demonstrated on i, let alone 69 Love Songs.

"Drive On, Driver" could have come across as a country song. "Three Way" could have been a surf tune, while "Xavier Says" almost sounds like a ’60s girl group gone bittersweet. But with everything buzzing and ringing and squealing, all the songs feel like the unfiltered dreams of a seriously messed-up scientist.

The distortion can get so excruciating, even the tenderest gestures, such as "Mr. Mistletoe", come across tortured. It’s a nice juxtaposition, really.

Even without all the effects, Distortion is perhaps the strongest set of songs Merritt has yet written. But with the distortion, the album becomes a fascinating exercise in studio excess. Merritt really didn’t fuck around with that promise to outdo the Jesus and Mary Chain.