CD Review: The Magnetic Fields

Distortion Nonesuch
Music •• Sound

The gimmick on the previous Magnetic Fields album, i, was that every song started with that letter. Similarly, the gimmick on Distortion is just that: Every instrument feeds back and distorts. Whereas the former album's i-centrism didn't intrude upon the songs themselves - which were, incidentally, marvelous - distortion renders the new album virtually unlistenable.

No doubt it's all a reflection of frontman Stephin Merritt's dark, clanging, complicated mood, but that doesn't make it any easier to stomach. Every one of the songs here is suffused in an agonizing sonic haze (if you've never heard an acoustic piano or a drum set distort, it's not pleasant), which obscures what might have been some decent songs. As a result, the album winds up sounding something like Metal Machine Music for shoegazers.

Granted, "California Girls" is a grimly comic putdown of same, the very opposite of the Beach Boys' own tune. I'll also allow that the distortion serves to enfold "Old Fools" in a grandly depressing fog of misery, and perhaps "I'll Dream Alone" benefits as well from Merritt's Wall of Sludge. But much of the album lays to waste his considerable songwriting skill, which itself may have been knocked off track by what seems like a serious case of depression that couldn't have been helped by the decadent scenarios he sings about.

In any case, I've got a great gimmick for the next Magnetic Fields album: no gimmick at all, please.

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