The Magnetic Fields can’t be accused of false advertising in titling studio album eight Distortion: Each tune’s wrapped in a fuzzy, clamoring shell, even when the feedbacking acoustic piano and guitar hum’s relegated to deep in the background. Distortion’s consistent textural palette’s reminiscent of Holiday’s “Desert Island,” but this is all about icy New York City, or some other place where it snows. Besides distortion, the songs are coated in the lonesome darkness of The Charm Of The Highway Strip. Sigh. On the whole, it sports more sonic depth than 2004’s sorta minor, stringier i. Let’s consider it a baker’s dozen of sad-and-out-of-love songs.
Let’s also consider it incredibly beautiful. We road tested “Old Fools” today and it’s the perfect winter walking song. Across the board, Distortion’s a cold-time album — not just in the season, but also the winter of someone’s life. In “Too Drunk To Dream,” Merritt laments (to an upbeat garage swing): “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.” People fall asleep with nobody to talk to but themselves, images of ex-lovers dancing like sugarplums in their head … it’s blustery and chapping in a number of ways: Songs focus on aging (“Old Fools”), regret (“The Nun’s Litany”), loss/resignation (the Broadway bound “I’ll Dream Alone”) and plenty of frozen climes (“Mr. Mistletoe”). Santa Claus and his elves even making an appearance (“Courtesans”).
It’s not just that the lyrics include ice, the songs themselves feel frigid: “Mr. Mistletoe” is a slow, piano-lined, distantly-squealing one-man stroll down snowy 7th Avenue (“mistletoe is everywhere, but you no longer care”). The protagonist, vocalized in best hangdog fashion by Merritt, won’t be celebrating Christmas this year, and sees mistletoe as a “useless weed.” Across Distortion Merritt almost trades vocal duties with Claudia Gonson every other song, though they duet on the super, Jesus & Mary Chained clanging “Please Stop Dancing.” Gonson looks at a different sort of snowfall with the song “California Girls,” which is basically “I hate California girls.” Of course, it’s too warm out there. Again this is a New York sounding album — the Village in an endless night; walking in the snow instead of the sand. The Shangri-Las reference is intentional: Listen to the drum echo in “I’ll Dream Alone” or “Drive On, Driver.” There’s the specter of Phil in some of these tunes (the latter, prime Charm material also includes a rippin’ VU guitar scowl, as does “Zombie Boy”).
Distortion isn’t as explicitly thematic as i or 69 Love Songs, but from the “Three-Way” intro, through the end-of-the-night “Courtesans,” it’s clear there’s some narrative going on. (“A Man Of A Million Faces” would’ve made good sense on it, if they upped the levels some.) It’s hard to tell if the connection is that infectious, screeching wall of sound or something more. Whatever the case, it’s a great record, the ambiance totally gorgeous. It’s like this is Merritt’s Darklands, in more ways than Stephin’s normal post-ABBA melancholia.
Distortion is out 1/18 on Nonesuch.