Stephin Merritt is a man of ideas. He likes to come up with clever conceits that function as formal frameworks on which to hang his wry indie-pop tunes. For Merritt - the brain trust behind the Magnetic Fields, as well as a plethora of side projects including the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and the Gothic Archies - the concept album isn't a lark or a one-off. In 1999 he whipped up a three-disc, three-hour, genre-spanning opus of modern romance and (being the literal sort) called it "69 Love Songs." A few years later the Magnetic Fields released "i," a soft-rock collection anchored by the twin pillars of self-deprivation (no synthesizers) and selfishness (each title begins with the most egomaniacal of vowels).
Merritt, whose music is perennially pretty and relentlessly grim, enjoys his juxtapositions. He's taken that fondness to extremes on "Distortion," the eighth Magnetic Fields album, out today. It's a hook-filled cacophony, a fuzz-saturated pop fest, catchy and assaultive in equal measure. Merritt's inspiration was the 1985 post-punk record "Psychocandy" - the seminal fusion of winsome melody and mechanical mayhem - and his goal, Merritt announced in a press release, was "to sound more like the Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain."
To that end, every instrument on "Distortion," from the guitars (naturally) to the piano, cello, and accordion, was forced to feed back during the recording process, and Merritt's melancholy and exuberant pop tunes are shrouded in thick layers of sonic lint. They buzz and drone and quiver. Clarity is nowhere to be found, certainly not in Merritt's witty paeans to unrequited love, dark desires, and twisted, tantalizing dramas.
The album opens with "Three-Way," Merritt's version of a pep cheer, where a gaggle (a trio, we can only imagine?) of male and female voices gleefully shout the title exclamation. The loaded subtext is delivered in a three-minute blast of sugared noise, and it's an apt entree to the dozen subversive songs that follow.
Merritt alternates lead vocal duties with Shirley Simms, a plaintive, '60s-style singer who was featured on "69 Love Songs," and the tracks unfold like conversational vignettes. She skewers "California Girls" (to the breezy strains of Merritt's Beach Boys-caliber popcraft), recites a nun's erotic wish list in blissful harmonies ("The Nun's Litany"), and makes a wistful case for sex as a simple business transaction on "Courtesans."
Merritt - in his dour, woozy baritone - interprets the holiday season's "dreadful decorations" as a personal affront ("Mr. Mistletoe"). He grows uncharacteristically peppy on the spurned lover's paean to booze ("Too Drunk to Dream"), but he recovers in time to bring the dead to amorous life: "You smell like the sewer/ But you don't make a sound," he sings on "Zombie Boy."
"Distortion" isn't an easy listen, with its strict, difficult palette. But it's an endlessly fascinating and provocative one. And it should be noted that Merritt, who recently moved to Los Angeles to be near his new boyfriend, tosses a hopeful bone into the otherwise bitter brew. "Old wine, old shoes/ Old lines who'd have thought they would ever reuse," he sings over the filthy, clanking mess of "Old Fools." "Like, I love you/ Surprise!"