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Album Review

Stephin Merritt celebrates all that is fuzzy, sexy, and drenched in reverb on Distortion, a 13-track rendering of the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy through the barbed sieve of the Magnetic Fields mastermind's seemingly endless notebook of relationship dos and don'ts and self-effacing cognitive therapy sessions. The unwavering decision to match the production with the album title is admirable, but one that will no doubt filter out the listeners who rely on Merritt's simple, clean melodicism to reel them in. By mirroring the lo-fi sunshine goth aesthetic that the Reid brothers so effortlessly beat into the ground in the mid- to late '80s, Distortion becomes more about style than substance, often burying the lyrics in an avalanche of mud that clings to each instrument (be it cello, Farfisa organ, accordion, or guitar) like pet hair on a pea coat. That said, patience rewards those who stick around for the credits, and acclimation to the pounding (yet still sweet) industrial landscapes comes about eight songs in with the instant classic "Too Drunk to Dream," a vintage Fields rave-up that launches out of a Gregorian-style intro that boldly proclaims "Sober, life is a prison/Shitfaced, it is a blessing/Sober, nobody wants you/Shitfaced, they're all undressing." It's a double-sided hook that clears the murkiness from the remaining five tracks, while simultaneously improving the first half (especially tracks like "California Girls" and "Please Stop Dancing") when spun for a second or third time. As usual, Merritt doles out vocal duties like handbills, making the whole affair feel a little more like a 6ths production rather than a Magnetic Fields event, and Shirley Simms, who lent her lovely pipes to 69 Love Songs and 2006's Showtunes, provides the album with many of its finest moments, specifically the infectious "Drive on, Driver" and the lovely closer, "Courtesans." In the end, though, even Simms' impossibly fluid voice can't cut through all of the noise. In some ways, it feels like a step backward, and even if that was the intention, it's disappointing to climb Distortion's many lovely peaks, only to be obscured by clouds.


Formed: 1990 in Boston, MA

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

The Magnetic Fields may be a bona fide band, but in most essential respects they are the project of studio wunderkind Stephin Merritt, who writes, produces, and (generally) sings all of the material. Merritt also plays many of the instruments, concocting a sort of indie pop-synth rock. While the Magnetic Fields' albums draw upon the electronic textures of vintage acts like ABBA, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music with Eno, Joy Division, and Gary Numan, Merritt's vision is far more pointed toward the alternative...
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