Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Magnetic Fields - Distortion

The Magnetic Fields
Distortion (Nonesuch, 2008)
Grade: B+

Download: The Magnetic Fields - "California Girls"
Download: The Mountain Goats - "Too Drunk To Dream"

One never quite knows what to expect from the Magnetic Fields. Usually, they're the strongest when lead singer Stephin Merritt is purring over the rumble of acoustic guitar. But I'm surprised and delighted with the direction Distortion takes. The wall of fuzz featured prominently on the album intensifies the solitude and leaves the impression that band is singing from somewhere very far away – either figuratively or literally (or both…like a satellite of loneliness).

On "I Don't Want To Get Over You" from 1999's 69 Love Songs, Merritt vowed to always be blue. And that promise holds up on Distortion. On "Too Drunk To Dream," Merritt sings of a love he needs to drink out of his head, while "Please Stop Dancing" finds Merritt and Shirley Simms each trading off laments about lost love. The latter song gives Merritt something else to be sad about: Simms completely steals his spotlight.

Hearing Distortion calls to mind my first experiences with Woody Guthrie recordings. There is so much relatable emotional intensity on the recording, but the crackle of the old recordings (or in this case, intentional distortion) seems to put up a barrier between the audience and the performer. It doesn't detract from the message of the music, but rather enhances it. It feels almost as if Merritt and Co. verbalize emotions we've all experienced, but they're in their own little world, incapable of comforting or being comforted.

I'm tempted to just drop it there, extolling the virtues of the dignified sorrow of Distortion, but the album has more to offer than that. The entire album has this great psychadelic-cum-80's veneer feeling, somewhat like Robyn Hitchcock. "California Girls," an ode to the self-absorbed SoCal lifestyle, takes a bright, jangly guitar lick and hides it behind a curtain of fuzz. The result is a song floats in the space between depressing social commentary and Hitchcock-inspired jangle pop. It's a bit disorienting, but the Fields definitely have the bravado to pull it off.

The only problem with Distortion is that while the songs don't blend together, they are pretty similar. Toward the end of the album, the heavy distortion can start to feel a little oppressive. Even so, this is still a great record to kick off the new year.

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(April Wright)

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