The Magnetic Fields – Distortion

The Magnetic Fields are a bonafide band and Stephen Merritt is the chief singer-songwriter of the group. Throughout all of their albums they have proven themselves as a band with clever lyrics and synthesized pop music. With their new album, Distortion, they follow this same formula, however with a distinctively different style. The music is, well, distorted with walls of sound that create a sludgy and dare I say, shoegaze feel.

As opposed to the band’s previous album, the string-heavy i, this new album is certainly recorded in a very lo-fi manner. The great thing is that Merritt’s songwriting ability is still the crucial element and shoegaze or not, the melodies and lyrics are still rampant. The gloomy, “Old Fools” features some of Merritt’s trademark mopey lyrics with a tender keyboard melody to back it.

I can certainly see how some people would complain about the reverb but hence the album title, the wall of sound is what is supposed to make this a unique listening experience. It’s not “just noise” but rather, a way of trying a new approach while still succeeding. Another standout is “California Girls” with its Beach Boys references found throughout the entire song, especially in the not so subtle title.

The best song might be “I’ll Dream Alone” because of the way the music and lyrics are brilliantly juxtaposed. Although the music is driving and powerful, the lyrics are certainly depressing and Merritt’s voice is the star here as he showcases his true range. The drums steadily pound away, the guitar is fascinating and the piano clinks away a faint melody. The song ends up being one of the best on the album since it is the most straightforward in terms of form; the chorus is one of the best that Merritt has ever crafted.

Let’s get frank and blunt though, the wall of reverb, shoegaze and lo-fi demeanor is everywhere on this album. There is nothing about it that would be classified as clear, crisp or polished. There is also nothing hidden or done in temperance. Every single song starts and ends with the guitar reverb, whether it be one straight drone or a few, delicate chord changes, the reverb is on each song. Now, as someone who isn’t a fan of shoegaze and any other genres of comparable ilk, this isn’t a problem.

The music is still lush and varied and the lyrics are still touching and relevant. The sad, “Mr. Mistletoe” is a prime example of this as Merritt sings “there’s no Christmas for me” and the guitar screeches to close the song. The next song, “Please Stop Dancing” has a much lighter, brighter feel as Merritt and Claudia Gibson share the vocal duties.

The use of Gibson is another strength that The Magnetic Fields take full advantage on here. In contrast to Merritt’s baritone drawl, Gibson’s cheery falsetto is a pleasant marriage. Her voice shines on the album and especially on the ominous closer, “Courtesans.” The music has more of a chugging reverb background and the guitar line might be the most melodic thing on the entire album. This is all fine as Gibson’s voice shines on top of everything.

This is definitely something that could be considered a “grower” in many aspects. For music fans that love to dissect and analyze their music this is a dream come true. The production is so muddy that there is a lot to come back to that will reveal more hidden gems. Songs like the laid-back “Drive On, Driver” with its looming guitar solo, the catchy opener, “Three-Way” or the distressing, dark “Till the Bitter End” have so much going on in terms of lyricism, chord progressions and style variance that the only way to fully grasp them would be with repeated listens.

With Distortion, The Magnetic Fields have certainly started 2008 in a very classy and memorable manner. Though this may seem like too much of a retreat for fans of their previous albums, the same components and proponents that make The Fields such a strong band are all still here. This is a terrific album, one fully ready and suited for headphones; an album that should be easily enjoyed by all and that will surely be loved by many.