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The Magnetic Fields – Distortion

May 15, 2008

When I saw The Magnetic Fields a couple months ago at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Stephen Merritt noted that probably 80% of the people in the audience had a blog, and that 50% of those people would go home that night and comment on the show. I didn’t do this, maybe because I was afraid of Stephen Merritt thinking I was lame (as if he was going to check up on the assessments of his band on shitty blogs), or perhaps because I was tired and lazy. And thirsty. It was another concert where I didn’t drink anything the entire time and I was very dehydrated. I bought a bottle of Coke on the way home. I bought a BOTTLE of Coke. In a gas station. That excited me. I don’t drink Coke from bottles very much. I couldn’t actually open it until I got inside though. I kept on working to get inside it in the car and it just wouldn’t budge. I had to settle in before I could actually drink my delicious beverage. It was the tastiest Coke I had ever experienced.

The Magnetic Fields concert was an experience. Listening to a Magnetic Fields album is usually an experience anyway, but seeing the band live helps to bring spirit and soul to the songs. I’m glad I had not bought Distortion before seeing the band live. I heard them perform, many of the songs from Distortion, and upon listening to the album itself, the songs that I heard live were immediately recognizable and easy to be comfortable with.

The fact that it took another four years to make Distortion, and that it also dons the now standard Fields label and a simplistic cover, denotes that the album should have yet another gimmick. It does, and it doesn’t. Distortion takes to its name, and is drenched in distortion, both smooth and screeching throughout, ala The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. The songs are almost of uniform length, none running over three minutes and ten seconds.

It seems like there should be some kind of solvable puzzle here, some key to be found that unlocks everything. It is because of 69 Love Songs and i that expectations of this album have been distorted to the point of being ridiculous. And in fact, 69 Love Songs did have a trick to it, and so did i. There is no trick on Distortion, and if there is one, it isn’t significant. We are tricked into thinking that the distortion is the key to the album.

It isn’t. It’s a caramel coating that needs to be cracked with a spoon to get to the ice cream. The Fields are not the first band to use these tricks. Psychocandy did it twenty five years ago, and I’d be shocked if these musicians did not know that. The distortion and feedback does not work quite as effectively on Distortion. The Jesus And Mary Chain were a pop band, like The Fields, but they were also a punk band. When The Fields include the elderly noise punk effects of Psychocandy into the album, it seems like an unwelcome distraction, regardless of how natural they actually were during recording.

Some aspect of the distortion does, however, strike a pleasing chord. Many of the songs feel lost in the fuzz, subdued, blanketed. Unlike Psychocandy’s distortion and feedback, the effects here are rather innocuous most of the time and do not detract from the album’s pop spirit. In that sense, production wise, it sounds more like The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees than anything, with hushed cymbal hits, gentle pianos, and exclamatory guitars, this time with the updated vocals and songwriting sensibilities of the present day Fields. The band also played Lovers From The Moon at the concert. That song sounded just as natural and free as the new songs, also performed without their original electric context.

While the production is no coy framework, the Magnetic Fields, and particularly Stephen Merritt, are masters of meter and verse, and can be clever and enjoyable within the confines of individual songs. Three Way, for example, is both silly and assuring at once in its sly trinity. Other fun roundabout approaches at deep emotion are seen in California Girls, a pot shot at the romantic musings of the Beach Boys, and Too Drunk To Dream, which should be the official drinking anthem of the USA or possibly the entire world if we could make it rhyme in every language. The genre hopping here is as prevalent as on 69 Love Songs or i, and in that sense Distortion is just as much of a treasure trove.

The ending Courtesans makes a convincing case for the importance of all of the distortion, but ultimately, Distortion is not an album that holds itself together with some unifying theme. The production, while unnecessary, works to the album’s advantage at least more than the production on i, and is not a major distraction. It is another album of vintage Magnetic Fields, and we like it for that reason. We like the Magnetic Fields. They seem to be obscuring their personality with smoke and mirrors, but Stephen Merritt could have hired Jim Reid to sing these songs and it wouldn’t fool us.

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