After a busy decade in the 1990s that saw the Magnetic Fields release six LPs, including the ambitious triple-album ’69 Love Songs,’ Stephen Merritt’s bunch returns with its second album since the turn of the century, ‘Distortion.’ The title is indicative of the record, as the usually simplistic band is drowned in a wall of sound comparable to most aspiring shoegaze bands. Even with the distortion in the background, the Magnetic Fields retain a charm that keeps fans interested.
The album starts off with an upbeat surf-rock feel to it, on a track called ‘Three-Way.’ There is not much singing going on aside from the occasional exclamation of the title itself, but the guitar’s thick sound is prevalent, as it is throughout the album.
Shirley Simms, who previously sang on ’69 Love Songs,’ splits vocal duties with Merritt on this album. Both add a unique feel to their tracks, with Simms’s voice contrasting nicely with the waves of the guitar behind her. Merritt’s usual monotone delivery either gives you a close look at his vulnerable side or a glance at his sly sense of humor.
‘California Girls’ comes off as a straightforward and forgettable pop song. Simms’s easy-flowing delivery is integral to this song as well as the entire album. ‘Drive On, Driver’ pushes along at a smooth pace, making it hard to resist not singing along.
The album also features a handful of signature brooders featuring Merritt’s usual melancholic vocals, and while the distortion adds a certain aesthetic with Merritt singing along at his slow pace, one wonders if it is necessary for songs like these to appear on the record.
Merritt never forgets to include his wit in his glum tunes. ‘Too Drunk to Dream’ features its share of swagger. Merritt sings along without a care in the world, ‘I know you think I’m insane / I know it’s not appealing / But till I’m feeling no pain / Guess what I’ll be feeling?’
For fans looking for those quirky stories the Magnetic Fields usually feature, they won’t be let down by the last couple of tracks on the album before the closer. After her cheerful delivery of hating California girls, Simms comes back to touch on practically every vice a nun could think about in ‘The Nun’s Litany.’ ‘Zombie Boy’ feels like it’s constantly on the move before Merritt’s descriptions are pulled to a halt by a sinister riff in the chorus.
‘Courtesans’ is a delicate closer, fitting for an album that has its share of noise. Don’t try to make much of the lyrics, because the song is too pretty to get lost in that confusion of the words.
Even through all the distortion, the Magnetic Fields have made another solid pop album. Do not be scared by the reflective title of the album, Merritt’s songwriting has not missed a beat, Simms shines whenever she sings, Claudia Gonson’s percussions and soft piano are vital to the feel of the record and they’ve used all the noise to make the album their own. Merritt’s dry delivery and touchy subjects have never been for everyone, but for the people they reach, it has always been a breath of fresh air.