There are two people’s voices I can impersonate well: that of Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt and Project Runway frontman Tim Gunn. It seems Merritt is forever impersonating as well, or perhaps just exploring the many forms of his beloved pop and rock songcraft. (Alas, Mr. Gunn specializes in another kind of craft, one that falls outside the purview of this review.) Of course this diversity was most prominent on the Magnetic Fields’ 1999 compendium 69 Love Songs, for which he and the band ran through nearly every permutation of the love-song conceit, and came to rest on the lucky number.
Yet, while the band has always been a sucker for a blunt conceit, the years since the release of 69 have seen the very bluntness become esoteric. 2004’s i was a string-laden soft-pop ode to melodrama where all the songs began with the prime pronoun and were arranged alphabetically. Then there’s the string of Mr. Merritt’s side-projects, from the guest-vocalist-heavy 6ths to the Gothic Archies’ morose children’s songs, an accompaniment to the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events books. Showtunes was a 2006 collection of Mr. Merritt’s work for Chinese theater director Chen Shi-Zeng. Recently Mr. Merritt’s voice even graced a Volvo commercial.
Which brings us to Distortion, an album with its own thematic conceit. The Magnetic Fields’ eighth album, in stores today, begins with a howling, surfy stormer of a song, its title and only lyrics, “Three-way!” repeated three times in three minutes, accompanying a fantastically distant piano roll fit neatly behind a twanging guitar line. It’s a clever introduction to an album the theme of which is so simple it becomes the title: Distortion.
Mr. Merritt wanted to build an album that would pay homage to the Jesus And Mary Chain’s epochal Psychocandy, itself a fawning pastiche of surf music and 50’s pop fed through distortion pedals and amplifiers and then fed back through the guitars. Think of the fuzzy thrash of “He’s A Rebel,” “Be My Baby,” or “Leader of the Pack” turned all the way to its screeching metallic most.
Mr. Merritt has said the album is meant to “sound more like the Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain,” though fans will be happy
to know that many of the tunes sound more like the intricate chamber pop for which the band is best known delivered through a blissful, noisy haze.
“My reason for emulating Psychocandy,” Merritt told The Observer, “was that I thought it would be a great way to make a record quickly.”
“I was wrong,” he went on to say.
And in fact, like the music he is responding to, the simplicity hides the workmanship. Perhaps that’s why Mr. Merritt and a lot of pop purists like him believe that the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and all those who worked with Phil Spector through the 60’s ushered in the greatest era of studio experimentation and perfection ever seen.
Mr. Merritt said that Distortion was an effort “to respond to what I see as the last significant event in pop production.”
The formalism of the Jesus And Mary Chain owes plenty to Spector et al, and suits the obsessive Mr. Merritt, but in place of moaning paeans to wayward bikers and dumb love, we have smart love and nuns wishing they were porn stars.
Italicized after the production credits in the liner notes is the phrase “No Synths,” and indeed the band seems to have upped the ante of their thematic self-challenge by using their usual instruments.
“There are no mistakes of any kind on this album,” Mr. Merritt said, “and it’s been edited to death for 18 months. Every available technology has been used in this process.”
But in fact, the recording itself took only a month. A lot of the technical work on the album was coming up with the D.I.Y. techniques to deliver distortion and reverb from an unlikely instrumentation, all without manipulation on a synthesizer. For Claudia Gonson’s piano and farfisa, the amp was laid next to the piano frame and turned up until it fed back; John Woo’s guitar was outfitted with tiny amps to channel vibrations directly back into the instrument. All this is to say nothing of Sam Davol’s cello and Daniel Handler’s accordion (a tiny amp was taped to the bellows). The only thing not distorted with amps was Ms. Gonson’s drumkit, which was recorded in a cavernous stairwell for maximum reverb, distortion’s gentler cousin.
All of the tracks flirt with the three-minute mark, none missing it by more than a few seconds, and the result is startlingly refreshing brevity unknown to most current pop albums. Mr. Merritt is at pains to stress that the album is an offering to rock fans, long left in the cold by the band’s meanderings. “Three-minute songs with distorted guitars: that’s a complete definition of rock,” he said.
Mr. Merritt clearly adores the Jesus And Mary Chain, along with the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Velvet Underground, yet he is clever, and talented enough to put the Magnetic Fields stamp on everything he does. The consistent fuzz harkens back to earlier albums like Holiday, yet nowhere has the band been so rocking so much of the time, and the sonic assault is addictive, especially in such small chunks. “Too Drunk To Dream” is perhaps the best example of the meeting of Mr. Merritt’s wit and the album’s textural force. He sings a capella: “Sober, life is a prison / Shit-faced, it is a blessing. / Sober, nobody wants you / Shit-faced they’re all undressing … / Sober, you’re old and ugly / Shit-faced who needs a mirror.” As the lines continue to roll by the echo increases until the song begins in earnest with a swinging tune and a screeching, tinny guitar. Other tracks deal with the damning march of time (“Old Fools”), the sublimated erotic desires and regrets of a nun (“The Nun’s Litany”) and a hopelessly lonesome Christmas (“Mr. Mistletoe”), where the plant in question is called a “useless weed.” Mr. Merritt told The Observer he prefers his lyrics “to involve conflict, drama, and tension,” which may be putting it lightly. Songs alternate between Mr. Merritt and a female singer, though in place of the usual Claudia Gonson is Shirley Simms, whom Mr. Merritt employed on tracks he felt were too pop for his deep baritone. Ms. Simms shines on the second track “California Girls,” whose refrain is (of course) “I hate California girls” as well as the noirish “Till The Bitter End,” and the two singers trade verses on the giddily contrarian “Please Stop Dancing.” While Mr. Merritt’s lyrics always return to themes of love and melancholy, there’s an iciness to many of the tracks here.
Mr. Merritt has long suffered from hearing problems, making live Magnetic Fields shows into pretty stripped-down affairs (the tour for this album will not involve the reverb and distortion techniques used to create it). But it’s not simply volume that makes a wall of sound, but the texture and interplay of instruments and vocals.
In the “loudness wars,” a trend critics say has led to songs so dense with sound that they lack dynamics, and so processed in the studio that they lack any personality, does this album take a side? “The loudness wars have been the normal way of making records for the last fifty years,” he said. “The aberration was the insertion of dynamics into popular music, as happened in the early ’90s when music radio became less relevant. Normally, producers try to make their records loud all the way through, to sound good on radio and other degrading audio media (laptop speakers, iPod headphones). Consumer audio, on MP3 especially, sounds better the more it gets compression in the studio and the less it relies on compression by the consumer’s crummy, unpredictable equipment.”
The challenge of so much noise doesn’t come without pitfalls, one being that Mr. Merritt’s delightful rhymes are occasionally swallowed by the imposing fracas. But then, that’s somewhat the point, since the echoing voice is just another instrument in the greater musical texture, and though Mr. Merritt’s wit is often touted as his strongest suit, perhaps he would rather we hear more of the totality of his songwriting, and hear music the way it sounds in of Stephin Merritt’s wonderful, defective ear.