Review: The Magnetic Fields-Distortion

Can I just say, the only thing more obnoxious than music snobs is music snobs trying to be grad students, who think they are interesting and “European,” and who think they are “rock writers” because they interned one time at a music magazine. The aforementioned music snobs are also terribly unexciting when you try to engage them in conversation because they can’t even do simple album or band comparisons, making them intellectually useless to me. I won’t mention any names, and I really hope that the person I just had dinner with does not read my blog.

I’m stuck in a hotel room without internet access, so it appears that fate is forcing me to finally write down some of my thoughts about Distortion. I can’t say that I am happy about this, because The Magnetic Fields have always produced these visceral, indescribable experience for me, and to translate what I feel into text or speech not only feels wrong, but comes out poorly, like a vivid dream that slips further and further away the more I try to record it.

After nearly 70 listens over the past few weeks, I still do not feel qualified to write this review. It appears that other historians of Stephin Merritt perhaps feel the same way, with the roundabout way they describe the album, writing and commenting without tackling it directly. It is like the sun—direct exposure produces a blindness that makes the eye a palimpsest of what it has seen. That sunspot can be analyzed to the heart’s content, but it barely cracks the surface of the true form it represents.

I have probably, at this point, read almost every review of Distortion on the internet and disagreed with all of them, positive or negative. To my surprise, the album’s release was a huge event, even to the least caring of anti-fans. I should qualify that: I expected there to be an event, but I did not expect every random person who listened to 69 Love Songs maybe once to think they had something to say about it. Unsurprisingly, however, they, too, had barely anything to say.

So why does an album with such a simple concept provoke such a failure to speak or write about its essence, form, or hidden mysteries? Perhaps because I have attached an almost religious significance to an album that is, in reality, quite simple.

Distortion is a rock album made by a man with an intense ear problem that makes loud noises seem shrill and painful, who responded to his disability by producing distortion, reverb, and amplification with the most melodically soft sounds that electric guitars can produce. The liner notes emphatically note “NO SYNTH,” and for good reason. The instrumentation plays tricks on the mind, especially when one is used to hearing Stephin Merritt through fancier versions of the Casio. But, like I’ve said before, after listening to Psychocandy, Distortion’s purportedly biggest influence, one can understand that guitar distortion is what made synth possible.

So here are my few unintelligent observations about the album:

Best Songs:

“Please Stop Dancing”
The most classically 1990’s Magnetic Fields-style song. The backup female vocals from Shirley Simms are impeccable.

“California Girls”
Not the least bit ironic, though catchy, funny, fast, pleasant to listen to, most relatable for bitter intellectuals.

“Three Way”
A novelty song, like “experimental music love,” except with substance because it actually sounds good (this is why I think it could be the last track and still go out with a bang).

“Drive on Driver”
Can’t help but be reminded of Papa Was a Rodeo (one of my favorites from 69 Love Songs) when listening to this one.

Best Elements:
1. No Claudia Gonson vocals (Shirley Simms is exponentially better in every way, especially given the almost asexuality of her voice).

2. The album is intellectually and bitterly funny. “Nun’s Litany,” “Too Drunk to Dream,” and “California Girls” are probably the best examples.

3. Experimental composition (see above commentary about “NO SYNTH”). Does he out JAMC the JAMC? In an interview with the Village Voice, SM says that he saw the JAMC perform live and was still able to listen to the distortion despite his ear problem, because they kept it so soundly melodic, so in a lot of ways this album pays more homage to that compositional element than it does to the idea of distortion itself.

4. Maintains the band’s character and is performed in true SM style while showcasing his best influences.


I really only have one. The album is top heavy in terms of quality. Mr. Mistletoe isn’t as great as everyone says. It only sounds like Christmas because of the sleigh bell sounds in the background. I also don’t really like Stephin’s vocals very much in it—I realize its supposed to be slow and sad sounding but it is kind of ridiculous. Like I’ve said before, listening to the album in reverse produces quite a different effect that makes it seem more complete. As is, Distortion is a little bit like reading the chapters of a book backwards, starting with the last, in anticipation of how the story began. This doesn’t make much sense to me. Why start at the denouement and work your way down?

How does it rank among other albums from TMF?

This is a hard question to answer, though everpresent in my mind each time I have listened to it. As a concept album, it is probably behind every album but i. In terms of production, it is on par with Holiday and Get Lost, but not as novel or interesting to listen to as 69 Love Songs. It definitely has as many, if not more, memorable songs than Get Lost, which I consider to be the pinnacle of SM excellence.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terrific review. I also agree Get Lost is perhaps his best work. Consistently wonderful. I've read reviews suggesting it's a weaker album in the MF catalogue and I'm convinced they've never even bothered to get through the whole thing to "The Dreaming Moon". That song is devastating.

7:43 PM  
Blogger aimi said...

I agree-anyone who puts 69 Love Songs or other more popular albums over Get Lost is making a pretty big mistake. There is no purer sound in the entire catalogue.

8:31 PM  

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