When I first heard 69 Love Songs, by The Magnetic Fields, I felt overwhelmed. I'd heard previous work by the group, but nothing could prepare me for the depth and breadth of that 3CD release. For some time after it came out, the sheer scale of it seemed to hold me a bit at arms length, but as time passed I found myself more and more in love with it, until I could put in any disc at random and sing along with every song. Since the release of that set, The Magnetic Fields have slowed down a great deal in terms of production (with only the inconsistent i arriving in the past 8 years), but main song-writer Stephen Merritt has kept himself busy with various projects.
In addition to helping out on a couple different albums by Future Bible Heroes, mainly Merritt has tried his hand at theatrical and film ventures. He put together soundtracks for the indie films Pieces Of April and Eban And Charley, created a side project (and music for) a musical companion for the Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books, and wrote musical pieces for three different musical productions (which were collected on the Showtunes release). At any rate, Distortion is the first new release from The Magnetic Fields in almost four years, and although it sounds a lot different on the surface, it's still packed with the same sort of melodies and lyrics that you'd expect from the group.
The production on Distortion is a literal interpretation of the title, with a sort of soft, fuzzy coating of feedback on every track. On first listen, it sounds like a bit of a gimmick, but given the stasis of i, it's a welcome change. Not only that, but the release kicks off with a trio of songs that are heads and shoulders above anything on that previous release. "Three Way" kicks things off with an ascending guitar line mixed with jangling pianos and the shouted chorus of the track title, evoking a surf-rock track with way too much juice in the amps. "California Girls" finds Claudia Gonson on lead vocals, dropping hilariously bitter lead vocals that tie in perfectly with the hazy track, while "Old Fools" finds Merritt in the drivers seat, crooning away as sparse but effective melodies are emphasized by that gauzy distortion.
After multiple listens, there are certainly a batch of songs that rise like cream to the top, and while the release doesn't have seriously low points, it's not as solid throughout as the best work from the group (especially towards the end). Still, hardly anyone can write sheer sardonic lyrics like Merritt, though, and when he's delivering them alongside blasting skronks of fuzzy pop like "Too Drunk To Dream," it's easy to proclaim that the group is back. Given the production techniques, Distortion simply sounds downright messy at times, but it's also a largely enjoyable return to form for the group.