Bad albums from The Magnetic Fields are sure hard to find so an album called Distortion which would purposely distort most of its songs sounded like this could possibly be their first misstep.
I mean, there’s no way that an album filled to the brim with feedback could be any good, right?
Distortion opens with “Three-Way”, a playful instrumental intro with the odd rocky break and people shouting “Three-way!” every so often. It’s random but it sets the tone rather well, plus it gets us used to this new intentionally distorted sound. Singer Shirley Simms then takes on the satirical “California Girls” which amusingly gets darker and bloodier as it goes on. It’s catchy, pretty funny and kinda genius.
This album already looks set to be pure Magnetic Fields wit and inventive musical experimentation and we’re only like two songs in!
“Old Fools” is a slower song sung by Stephin Merritt and it’s a pretty but melancholic one with a sad vibe throughout. It feels like a long, serious, pensive march with Merritt’s usual dark vocal tones making it sound both sinister and hopeful somehow. “Xavier Says” is next and it’s a softer track sung by Simms this time. It’s an enjoyable listen even if the simple melody is supported by all that white noise.
Merritt opens the next one, “Mr Mistletoe”, with some poetic vocals before the song develops into what sounds like a gloomy, depressing Christmas tune. Luckily, the lyrics and melody are spot-on as ever. We’re then back in rockier territory with “Please Stop Dancing”, one of the best tracks on the album and one you could imagine being even cooler covered by a fast-paced punk band. Merritt and Simms both take it in turns to sing this nonchalant little anthem.
“Drive On, Driver” starts off almost like a soft country song with its slow, regular beats and Simms and Claudia Gonson’s vocals harmonising this road trippin’ tune. It’s the closest the band comes to a straight-up folk song on the album. Stephin Merritt opens “Too Drunk To Dream” a capella before this upbeat yet morose love song about boozing to avoid dreaming kicks in. Suffice it to say that it’s pretty awesome.
“Till The Bitter End” is a darker, infinitely more gothic song and Simms’ soft vocals work perfectly with the with the guitar’s occasional blunt appearances. Mr Merritt then gets to be a bit of a crooner with “I’ll Dream Alone”, another heartbreaking love song and my personal favourite track on the album. The song beautifully develops into a genuinely charming, if sad, chorus. It’s, quite simply, a gem and proves just how versatile the band can be: one second clearly joking around, the next showing up with a sweet, heartfelt song you’ll want to listen to over and over again.
Simms sings the ironic “The Nun’s Litany” with its catchy melody and its clever lyrics. It’s similar in tone to “California Girls” in that sense. Of course, the whole thing is still very much bathed in distortion. “Zombie Boy” is moodier, rockier and boasts a glam feel despite not being synth-based whatsoever. Somehow, The Magnetic Fields have managed to channel some New Wave swagger without going down the electro route and it makes for a unique, really cool song. The album ends with “Courtesans”, a soft, nostalgic track with a pretty melody and a reflective tone.
As you might have already guessed from this review so far, The Magnetic Fields have, indeed, pulled it off once again delivering a very good album that’s truly one of a kind. Distortion may be about as distorted as it gets but it’s so well written and the songs are so cleverly put together that it all blends in together perfectly and you quickly welcome its bold, risky concept.
Is it the band’s very best? That’s debatable, but it’s certainly right up there with some of their best work.
That’s 4 well earned Ziggies out of 5.