Wild Mercury Sound

Magnetic Fields: "Distortion"

John Mulvey

Rare candour from a musician in a press release today. This is Stephin Merritt talking about the Magnetic Fields album, “Distortion”. The goal, he says, was “to sound more like Jesus And Mary Chain than Jesus And Mary Chain.”

I always think that Merritt’s most interesting when he’s grappling with a sonic concept rather than an intellectual one, which is why my favourite Magnetic Fields album has always been 1994’s ersatz-country “Charm Of The Highway Strip”, rather than the usual touchstone, “69 Love Songs”. More recent offerings have generally left me a bit nonplussed, though I did enjoy that last Gothic Archies album based on the Lemony Snicket books, whose name I forget. Merritt’s fathomlessly lugubrious baritone makes him a good, bookish goth – as did a hellish hour I spent with him in 1995, maybe, when he revealed himself to be one of the most deadpan and world-weary interviewees I’ve ever encountered.

“Distortion” is great, though – and so much more satisfying than most indie chancers who try and co-opt the Reid brothers’ initial peerless formula of Spectorish bubblegum melody and great waves of feedback. Merritt proves himself to be a noise aesthete to stand comparison with Kevin Shields here: “Mr Mistletoe” takes layer after layer of penetrative crackle and arranges it into something uncommonly festive – even if Merritt’s voice conjures up images of the undead with a chilly precision that equals anything on that Gothic Archies album (as, actually, does the pretty explanatory “Zombie Boy” here, too).

Beneath the racket, though, not that much has changed in the Magnetic Fields modus operandi – though the tunes are a damn sight poppier, if memory serves, than the underwhelming stuff served up on 2004’s “I”; some of his best ever, I’d say. “Distortion” is still, essentially, a chamber pop record: the feedback is generated by piano and cello as much as it is by the guitar. Again, Merritt’s meticulous orchestration of his sonics is what really impresses – a sense of how random sound can be organised into something so attractive that you barely notice the cacophony from which it is constructed.

It’s a pretty record then – “69 Love Songs” vocalist Shirley Simms fronts maybe half of the tunes here. Funny, too: “Too Drunk To Dream” finds Merritt hamming it up, relatively, in some kind of high school musical-style paean to the solace delivered by alcohol.

And yes, it sure sounds like the Mary Chain. Though Uncut is rather lucky in having one of that band, Phil King, on our staff. The other day, he spotted an even closer parallel to “Distortion”; Ultra Vivid Scene circa “The Mercy Seat”. A strange continuum, too, to Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic”, where Springsteen’s vocal on the “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” is probably meant to ape the Walker Brothers, but ends up being uncannily reminiscent of Stephin Merritt.

But I digress. “Distortion” is out in January, when The Magnetic Fields promise, with reliably exacting contrariness, to play some gigs which will feature no feedback. “The Nun’s Litany” is playing now, and I’ve just noticed it appears to be about S&M, among other things. What a curious and excellent album, all round.


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