Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

Album Review: Distortion by The Magnetic Fields

Say you’re drunk. Or, better yet, you just woke up after one of those Mexican Martini nights, so it’s one of those mornings where the sun, you’re sure, is already blazing its blaze just beyond your bedroom window, yet you can only spot a squeak of it through the blinds, and that little bit of light is really all you handle. Anything more would send you into full-on fury, but that special kind of fury where you can’t really do anything, because, truly, you feel like shit.

The Magnetic Fields’ new album, Distortion, seems to have been composed on such a morning. But no, this isn’t a bad thing. If you think about it, some of the purest and most unadulterated moments come when in this most unpleasant of states; after all, reason is out and only absolute animalness and grouchiness and even a bit of self-loathing humor can be had. In music, you could say it’s a place where melodies are simple and indulgently satisfying, while the themes are effortlessly and simultaneously tragic and comic. And Distortion gets right at all of it, right down in its crusty center. True, the entirety of the album is covered in a fog, a thick haze of crunch and—who would’ve guessed it—distortion.

The fact that The Magnetic Fields are legends is and is not beside the point. Their epic 1999 release 69 Love Songs—a triple album magnum opus of range and obsession and theatricality and depression and joy—set the bar pretty high for lead man Stephin Merritt, and he’s struggled a little to get back to that apex. 2004’s i was an all-acoustic affair that felt a little too soft, and besides that we’ve only caught brief glimpses of the band in the twenty-first century, a fact that’s pretty shocking considering the fact that Merritt, with the help of three other occasional lead vocalists, came out with sixty-nine songs in one year. So, to say that Distortion is a return to form wouldn’t be fair, but to say that it’s a very nice album would be.

The album begins with the triumphant and mostly wordless “Three-Way,” a song which in its own conceit stands as a harbinger of the music to come, while tracks such as “Old Fools,” “Please Stop Dancing,” and “Drive On, Driver”—one of several songs ably sung by Shirley Simms—are signature Magnetic Fields songs blanketed in that relentless haze. There are a couple misses here, as “California Girls” (chorus: “I hate California girls”) and “Mr. Mistletoe” are either too over-the-top or too medicated to survive their own confidence. But the album holds together quite well, with or without the uniform distortion.

Truth be told, Stephin Merritt’s work feels a little out of place in 2008, as it doesn’t feature all the bells and whistles of present-day indie. But, surprisingly enough, that’s really refreshing. It’s just music, and honesty, and a damn-bad hangover. And Merritt puts the reason for the hangover, and the haze of the album, in perfect focus with the chorus of “Too Drunk to Dream”: “I’ve got to get too drunk to dream / cuz dreaming only gets me blue / I’ve got to get too drunk to dream / because I only dream of you / I got to get too pissed to miss you / or I’ll never get to sleep / I’ve got to drink wine not to pine for you / and god knows that ain’t cheap.” And so it goes.

More about The Magnetic Fields: Official Website or MySpace

To download this album via Daily Dose, click here.

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