What follows is the story behind The Magnetic Fields’ “Distortion,” as imagined after hearing it. Lead singer Stephin Merritt is at a noise-rock concert. The lead singer of the performing band adjusts the microphone. As the deafening squeal of feedback explodes from the speakers, Merritt cringes and exclaims, “Brilliant!”
After consistently releasing great pop music over the past 17 years, Merritt can afford to take chances. But three concept albums (discounting the anthology “Showtunes”) in a row is pushing it. After the monolithic, three-album “69 Love Songs,” and the chamber-pop flavored “i,” it’s not too much to expect a straightforward album from the increasingly bizarre Stephin Merritt. To longtime Magnetic Fields fans, the lyrics are still familiarly ironic and funny, but they can’t make up for the album’s missteps. “Distortion” consciously draws on the aesthetic of the Jesus and Mary Chain 1985 classic “Psychocandy,” with both Merritt and guest vocalist Shirley Simms singing over overlapping musical lines, but it lacks the understanding of William and Jim Reid in how to keep the feedback and distortion from overwhelming the rest.
Merritt’s songwriting, rather than “Distortion”’s reliance on aural interference, carries the album. He also deserves props for being adventurous enough to experiment with feedback accordion. On the whole, the album is good despite the concept, not because of it — but getting past the piercing shrieks proves difficult. And when the songs themselves are lackluster, their mediocrity is only accentuated by the background noise, making for a couple truly grating tracks, such as “Mr. Mistletoe.”
“Three-Way,” the rumbling opener (the only lyrics: “Three-way!”), sets the tone for the album with synthesizers and plunked piano laid over a distorted guitar. It fades into “California Girls,” a snarky and appropriately-styled response to The Beach Boys; the song is catchy, if a bit precious. By “Old Fools,” however, the distortion seems to just be distracting noise slapped on a perfectly good, if slightly dragging, lament. It’s like pouring ketchup on a chocolate cake.
Nevertheless, several tracks in the middle shine. “Distortion” hits its stride on “Please Stop Dancing” and “Drive On, Driver,” in which the feedback acts in contrast to the delicacy of Simms’ vocals. The album’s gem is “Too Drunk to Dream,” a tragicomic song about drinking away heartache, which begins with Merritt’s distorted voice chanting words like, “Sober, you’re old and ugly / Shit-faced, who needs a mirror?” Here, the chaos lends the image of Merritt stumbling and yelling, “It’s you, you heartless bastard / You’re my one and only.” And really, who doesn’t love a sing-along about getting drunk?
But while some tracks are great, the album’s underlying problem is that the songs have no apparent connecting factor beyond the grinding background noise. And even on individual tracks, Merritt does not use the concept effectively. In “Distortion,” The Magnetic Fields ultimately show that distortion is not enough.