“Three-Way,” the opening song on Distortion, introduces, in a deceptively exuberant blast of pop noise, the themes and obsessions of Magnetic Fields’ eighth album. The lyrics simply consist of gleefully repeated exclamations, by male and female voices, of the song title. While “Three-Way” may summon images of Twister-like physical exertions in a situation where three is not a crowd, the subsequent material describes scenarios in which desire itself is twisted into dark, alluring shapes and love remains tantalizingly unrequited. Using a modest number of instruments, composer and producer Stephin Merritt creates a veritable wall of sound. He employs no synthesizers; instead, he generates waves of feedback that envelop every track like a spiky black gift-wrapping.
“I wanted to make a record of three-minute pop songs, then they turned into three-minute power-pop songs,” Merritt explains. “The previous Magnetic Fields record had been self-consciously soft rock, with all the songs starting with the letter ‘i.’ The idea here was to make this record quickly and use the same instrumentation on every song. And if I had to use the same instrumentation all the time, what would I want it to sound like? Well, like the first Jesus and Mary Chain album! So I attempted to adapt the sound of Psychocandy to the orch-pop reality of the Magnetic Fields, where we have a pianist and a cellist. And the occasional accordionist.
The upfront metal-machine drone and submerged Ronettes romanticism of Psychocandy made that Scottish quartet’s sullenly beautiful 1985 debut a post-punk landmark. Merritt set out to take that concept a step further, radically altering the entire sound of his chamber-pop ensemble—cellist Sam Davol, pianist Claudia Gonson, and lead guitarist John Woo, plus Daniel Handler on accordion.
“We wanted to sound more like Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain,” Merritt explains. “I don’t know if anyone has ever done feedback piano before, but the whole record has feedback piano. We put the amplifier directly up against the frame of the piano and turned it up enough to start feeding back. I went out and bought all these cigarette-case amplifiers and taped them to the guitar so that the amplifier became part of the instrument—we rubber-banded them together so they vibrated against each other as well as vibrating the guitar. We couldn’t get the accordion to technically feed back but we did put a cigarette-case amplifier on the bellows.”
Only the drums, also played by Gonson, were left au naturel: “We set up the drums in the hallway of my old apartment at London Terrace,” says the long-time Manhattan resident, who recently relocated to Los Angeles. “Since I was moving out, it was suddenly okay to make more noise. The enormous boom sound of the drums is actually real. The reverb you hear on the drums comes from that tiled hallway and a seventeen-story stairwell.”
Merritt had anticipated doing all the lead vocals himself, but after the songs were finished he decided to re-enlist Shirley Simms, a featured performer on Magnetic Fields’ 1999 magnum opus 69 Love Songs, to take turns fronting these tracks with him and to trade verses on “Please Stop Dancing.” “My voice just isn’t pop enough, so I decided to have Shirley sing half the record. Shirley’s voice is as pop as it gets,” says Merritt.
This bifurcated approach to the vocals underscores the humor and drama in Merritt’s songs, which depict self-delusional characters whose romantic despair is so extreme it somehow becomes ennobling. Simms brings a plaintive quality to a woman glaring with murderous intent at skinny, surgically enhanced arm candy on “California Girls,” a cutting spiel delivered with a subversive Beach Boys breeziness, and she imbues a kind of a girlish innocence to “The Nun’s Litany,” a detailed erotic wish-list from a closet libertine. Merritt himself delivers the woozy, closing time confessions of the sing-along-worthy “Too Drunk Too Dream.” (Merritt admits, “It’s in 6/8 time and in a major key and it’s kind of up-tempo, but it’s not a happy lyric. It’s pretty tragic really.”) His brooding baritone on “Mr. Mistletoe,” in which an abandoned lover finds betrayal in every holiday decoration on snowy city streets, recalls his more tongue-in-cheek performance on the 2006 Gothic Archies disc, The Tragic Treasury, a collaboration with Lemony Snicket author/accordionist Handler. And he makes the narrator of “Zombie Boy,” who reanimates the dead to do his romantic bidding, seem almost like a practical sort of guy. The concluding track, “Courtesans,” sung by Simms to a stark arrangement of fuzzed-out guitar and clanking percussion, suggests that we might all be better off if sex were simply an elegant transaction and love never entered the equation. We’d almost believe her were it not for that melancholy tug in her voice.
The sound of Distortion may be startling for some fans of Merritt’s wide-ranging oeuvre. He jokes, “Many of my rock-oriented fans refused to buy any record called Showtunes,” Merritt’s 2006 compilation of songs from his work with Chinese theatre director Chen Shi-Zeng, “so this one is for them.” But Distortion was also something of a revelation to Merritt himself: “I had bought an MC5 greatest hits album a while ago and only just realized that I hadn’t listened to it. I turned it on and—oh my God, it sounds like my new record!” Magnetic Fields intend to perform a series of short residencies in several American cities to support Distortion, but don’t expect it to sound much like the album: “We make records that can’t be duplicated live, and then we go out and do it completely differently. We only play in theatrical venues where the red velvet chairs remind people to be quiet.”
Merritt has long suffered from hearing problems that prevent him from cranking up the amps when he performs. He says, “All of the other people involved in making this record understand what everything sounds like to me if it’s too loud. If I listen to the Carpenters at a really loud volume, suddenly they sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain.” But it was texture—not outright volume—that inspired Merritt on Distortion.
“This is my most commercial record in a way,” he concludes. “Some audience members may be completely and immediately turned off but, I figure, if you find it too loud, just turn it down and it will sound quite pretty.”
-- Michael Hill