"Sober life is a prison / Shit faced it is a blessing. / Sober nobody wants you / Shit faced they're all undressing ... / Sober you're old and ugly / Shit faced who needs a mirror."
Too Drunk To Dream - The Magnetic Fields
For their eighth album, Stephin Merritt takes his luscious melodies and satirical lyrics, arguably the things The Magnetic Fields have won most plaudits for, and deliberately, in fact, willfully, drowns them in a squealing cacophony of fuzzy guitars and grating feedback. Think Jesus And Mary Chain's landmark Psycho Candy meeting Rogers And Hammerstein in a pub with the Associates.
I can't decide if the retro 1985 stylings are entirely fitting but they are unlike much of anything you'll have heard recently. Beneath it all are some incredibly good songs and when the lyrics of the lonely, the drunk and the sexually maladjusted bang up against the white noise something chemical does happen in most examples on the album. It's often incredibly striking.
The instrumental 'Three Way', a mad scramble of guitars punctuated by the odd mantra-like chant of the song title reminds me of the swirling giddiness of the Associates 'The Affectionate Punch'. And despite the murkiness, fuzz and booming drums, the melodies are still there, crisp and memorable. Merritt shares vocal duties pretty much equally with Shirley Simms and they provide a light and dark contrast, at least vocally. 'California Girls' is the suicide note of a woman completely fed up with the so called ideal of womanhood but sung disconcertingly in such sweet tones that it makes you do a double take.
'Mr. Mistletoe' is a weird sort of anti-Christmas carol whilst 'Please Stop Dancing' is an exhilarating plea for isolation and with 'California Girls' is one of the best tracks on the album, using the fuzzy guitars to great effect. 'Too Drunk To Dream' is a typically Merritt take on an alcoholic dependent relationship that can't seem to end and is full of razor sharp wit and observation. It's a searing piece of work.
'Drive On, Driver' is a country ballad like no other, harking back to some of their earlier work but wrapped in garagey guitar squealing. But the melodies always linger.
The last three songs are again, excellent, and tell tales of loss and regret. 'I'll Dream Alone' is a Broadway show tune shot through with Velvet Underground discordancy. 'The Nun's Litany' is the jewel in this particular crown. A nun dreams of becoming a Playboy bunny or a porn star now that Mummy has died. Fantastic narrative lyrics sung so beautifully by Simms and dressed in spiky feedback. My other favourite is the quietly disturbing tale of gay necrophilia 'Zombie Boy' which conjures up some odd mix of late 50s B movie horror and gay porn that suits the anti-Beach Boys melody and chorus. Gloriously decadent.
Well...really...the answer is in the album title for heaven's sake. Distortion. Yeah, like life's a great big distortion and we're all distorted by drink, sex, loneliness, death and loss. And then you get the literal distortion of the music. Simple really.
It's full of Merritt's trademark deadpan ditties, sounds like some kind of sonic transmission from outer space but still has room to make you understand the heartfelt content. It doesn't all come off successfully in the clash between the music and Merritt's usual preoccupations. But it still has at least nine good songs out of the thirteen and will win them as many new fans as they lose a number of the old if recent reaction is anything to go by.
Distortion - The Magnetic Fields (Nonesuch 7559799654 Released 14th January)
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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