Sunday, January 13, 2008

Record Review: The Magnetic Fields: Distortion

The beloved indie rockers return with their eighth record, and their first since 2004's i. Though the band bury their pop hooks under a layer of noise this time around, the songs themselves follow the traditional Magnetic Fields' pattern, often to boring and predictable ends.

Rating: 3/5

I’m really not the biggest Magnetic Fields fan, but even I can’t deny 69 Love Songs its place as one of the classic indie rock albums of the 1990s. Bloated as the album was (I mean, its 69 songs), the often sarcastic lyrics were amusing, the melodies memorable, and, while the band was intermittently dramatic and light-hearted, the whole thing seemed to come together under one grand scheme, all in the name of love. Outside of Love Songs, I really haven’t been that impressed by Fields’ work, and Distortion is no exception.

Certainly, Distortion is a pleasant, listenable pop record. Stephen Merritt and (I think) Claudia Gonson provide mildly catchy hooks and ironic lyrics over fuzzy guitar, crafting an album significantly noisier (though not necessarily louder) than i, the band’s 2004 effort. As on i, the synths that characterized Magnetic Fields’ early work are absent here, but this time around distorted guitar (from where the album title came, presumably) takes center stage in place of the acoustic guitar and lush cello stylings of Distortion’s predecessor.

On its face, this record should succeed, as the band maintains its traditionally strong qualities while shifting the basic sonic blueprint. However, things just don’t click into place, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Stephen Merritt’s tongue-and-cheek, lovesick lyrics grow more and more tiresome over the course of the album. Yeah, such lyrics are his MO, but 69 Love Songs essentially quenched my thirst for such sarcasm once and for all. So, when Merritt, on “Too Drunk Too Dream,” croons, “You, you heartless bastard / You’re my one and only,” I’m left saying “yeah, yeah” instead of smiling the way I still do when I listen to Love Songs’ darkly humorous “Oh, Yeah.”

Perhaps I could stomach the lyrical redundancy if the album was more musically varied, but track after track features the same noise pop sound. Where Love Songs’ eclectic styles brought fresh life to each love-obsessed track, Distortion’s sonic repetition leads to a monotonous listen, one where each song blends into the next, only the very best standing out.

That being said, “the very best” is actually quite entertaining. Even without considering its chuckle-worthy title, the much-blogged, mostly instrumental “Three Way” kicks thing off effectively, with a memorable lead guitar line snaking along over the general noise behind it. The melody of “Xavier Says” is irresistible, as is that of “Please Stop Dancing,” a song further enhanced by the perfect back and forth between the Fields’ two singers.

Of course, there are ten more tracks, and most of them just don’t do it for me. Odds are, however, if you are big a Magnetic Fields fan, you’ll like this one from start to finish. Take a listen:

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