Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Barbed Wire Kisses

Indie songwriter extraordinaire confronts loss of love with with and guitars

****

MAGNETIC FIELDS
Distortion
Nonesuch

The Magnetic Fields ground to a near halt once postmodern Manhattan tunesmith Stephin Merritt proved his facility with the 69 Love Songs triple CD in 1999. After a decade that featured five auspicious CDs and then three great ones four years in the making, as well as side projects like the lisp-risking 6ths, this decade has been mostly side projects: two negligible soundtrack albums, more 6ths and Future Bible Heroes, the twenty-six Showtunes that nobody likes as much as Merritt. The sole jewel is the Gothic Archies' set of grisly ha-ha children's songs, cleverer by several sixths than the Magnetic Fields' 2004 i, whose fourteen titles all begin with that self-referential letter and are performed alphabetically in a puzzle that recalls either Jorge Luis Borges or the Sunday acrostic.

This is where I'm supposed to tell you how this just changed with a bang, but nothing with Merritt is that simple -- not even the bang, which is more a roar. The new album is called Distortion for excellent reason. Switching up fifteen years of obsessively clean sonic practice, it's loud and deliberately dirty. Plus, it rocks. Plus -- well, the lead track is called "Three-Way." Three seconds of trebly white noise introduce a three-minute succession of familiar rock riffs, some on piano and more on guitar, propelled by booming drums and plinking piano. The lyric consists of two words: the title, shouted three times.

Though the opener is genuinely fun, Merritt, having made his point, never turns the lyrics off again. The other twelve songs all display his mordant irony, endearing fondness for the cheap joke and dour refusal to express himself. But for the first time, the man who once wrote "A melody is like a pretty girl/Who cares if it's the dumbest in the world?" foregrounds neither clever words nor dumb tunes. Merritt says that in order to "make this record quickly and use the same instrumentation on every song," he emulated -- what else? It's so bloody obvious -- the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy. And so he set about eliciting feedback from his usual instrumentation: guitar, piano, cello and accordion. His methods were very DIY -- even with the guitar, where there's equipment for this sort of thing, Merritt deployed tape, rubber bands and cigarette-case amps. The drums he merely recorded in the hallway of his Manhattan apartment building, which he was about to vacate for Los Angeles' smoggy skies.

Merritt digs the Jesus and Mary Chain because like him they're mad formalists. But Distortion doesn't sound much like Psychocandy. First, the tunes aren't dumb enough. On Psychocandy, the craftily layered noise is the meat and the comforting three-chord jingles the gravy, while on Distortion melodies still poke out of a ragout where the herbs haven't quite melded. They're not as elaborate as he's capable of, but they certainly vary: the modulated "California Girls," the carol-like "Mr. Mistletoe," the time-shifting "I'll Dream Alone," the peppy garage-pop verse bursting from the chanted intro of "Too Drunk to Dream." Then there are the voices: Merritt's sepulchral baritone alternating with 69 Love Songs' "as pop as it gets" Shirley Simms, both more obtrusive than J&MC's whispering Reid brothers. And, of course, there are lyrics.

That chanted intro starts "Sober, life is a prison/Shitfaced, it is a blessing" and goes on from there. There's a transvestite catfight featuring Xavier and Zsa Zsa, courtesans who believe in Santa Claus, a nun who wants to be a porn star after Mom dies, a zombie lover who smells like a sewer but doesn't make a sound. There are also a bunch of less metaphorical songs about love's futility and pain, summed up by "Too Drunk to Dream"'s "It's you, you heartless bastard/You're my one and only." Is it possible the real Stephin left NYC to vacate the ruins of his seventieth love song? Because he's such a mad formalist, we can't know without reading the gossip blogs, and that's for the best. Distortion has an indelible identity. It rocks, in this case a meaningful, temporary departure. Its unmelded sonic gestalt suits its thematic disquiet. It's Stephin Merritt's second-best album, which is saying a great deal.

Rolling Stone, Jan. 24, 2007