Album: The Magnetic Fields

Distortion (Nonesuch)
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Sometimes, a songwriter can be too smart for their own good. And as often as not, that songwriter is The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, who seems to approach composition with the experimental attitude of systems music, imposing rules and parameters to test his own limits. There was the 69 Love Songs project, spread across a triple-album; then there was the i album, in which all the track titles started with that letter.

Since i, Merritt has been occupied by film soundtrack work (Eban and Charley and Pieces of April), theatre (Showtunes), and The Tragic Treasury, an album of songs written to accompany Lemony Snicket's ghoulish children's tales. Now, five years on from i, comes the follow-up, Distortion, for which he opted to devise an album of three-minute pop songs, then transmogrify them by turning all the instruments up to 11, creating a thorny thicket of feedback and distortion that swaddles everything in fuzzy noise, in the manner of the early Jesus And Mary Chain.

It's a bizarre strategy, not least because The Magnetic Fields' usual approach involves methodical chamber-pop presentations of his droll, witty songs, delivered in Merritt's lugubrious baritone; here, it's sometimes impossible to discern the lyrics, as he and fellow singer Claudia Gonson struggle to surmount the barrage of ambient noise. The most effective piece is probably "Three-Way", on which the only vocal is an occasional exclamation of the title: it's positively Spector-esque in its subjugation of human elements to an overall atmosphere of grandiose menace.

As ever, it's affairs of the heart and groin that fascinate Merritt the most, whether pondering love extending beyond the grave in "Zombie Boy", reflecting in "Courtesans" on the self-sufficiency of those able to separate heart from head in matters carnal, or musing in "The Nun's Litany" upon a nun's forbidden sexual desires.

Merritt's own attitude to love and sex is of a more jaundiced hue: his "California Girls" takes a sourer view of its subject than The Beach Boys', closer to Zappa's "Valley Girl" in its contempt for their superficiality. And in "Too Drunk To Dream", he reflects cynically on the way alcohol lubricates desire.

The razor-witted sharpness of previous albums is still evident in places, it just offers itself up more reluctantly from behind the translucent shroud of feedback and reverb: imagine Sondheim produced by Phil Spector and Kevin Shields, and you'll get some idea of how strange and singular a project this is.

Download this: 'Three-Way', 'The Nun's Litany', 'Too Drunk to Dream', 'Mr Mistletoe', 'California Girls'