ALBUM REVIEW: The Magnetic Fields – Distortion

15 January 2008

With 2008 gearing up to be the year of sophisticated shoegaze, New York’s Magnetic Fields couldn’t have picked a better time to release this follow up to 2004’s concept album, i. Distortion is a no-holds-barred, more Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain, industrial symphony that fuses biting lyrics with complex arrangements and intense distortion. First single California Girls is a case in point, an aggressive response to the sundrenched Beach Boys classic of the same name. Merritt drawls out lyrics with a baritone that bears comparison with Scott Walker, switching from conscious Americana on Old Fools to 50’s crooner on anti-Christmas anthem Mr. Mistletoe. Distortion could easily have descended into pointless self-indulgence were it not for countless moments of soaring affirmation – Drive on, Driver wrenches a heartbreaking refrain from a bedrock of seething white noise and propels it into a mesmerising round, interspersed with startling one liners – ‘take me to the airport/I need to be extremely far away’. Frontman Merrit, obsessed with ‘theme’, refused to record the album until a concept had been hit on – begging the question of where the retro synth-band could go from an album underpinned by having every track title beginning with an ‘i’. The artist that he is, Merrit wouldn’t settle on, say, ‘j’, instead rendering Distortion an uncomfortably realistic album, the band making their point by juxtaposing dark vocals – The Nun’s Litany is a great example, ‘I want to be a dominatrix/which isn’t like me, but I can dream’ – with upbeat 60s harmonies and complex chamber-pop. An incredible album, Distortion has raised the bar for any consciously adult rock set to roll in this year, proving that paying tribute to your musical influences is all about inspiration, not plagiarism.