The new Magnetic Fields album, Distortion, reviewed.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Jan. 15 2008 6:03 PM

We Should Be Whispering All the Time

A new album from the Magnetic Fields.

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Lines like those have earned Merritt comparisons to Morrissey, whose influence on Merritt's vocals is audible. But his real spiritual cousin is Lorenz Hart, who, like Merritt, was a short gay man, a fearsome internal-rhymer, and a clear-eyed chronicler of hopeless love. Distortion includes several fine new entries in Merritt's book of woe. "Too Drunk To Dream," an ode to drowning sorrows, begins with a reverb-swathed chant—"Sober, life is a prison/ Shitfaced, it is a blessing/ Sober, nobody wants you/ Shitfaced, they're all undressing." The ballad "I'll Dream Alone" ups the melodrama with a big octave leap in the chorus, but Hart would admire the froideur of the lyric: "I'll dream alone if I must/ I guess our little castle in the sky/ Just turned to dust."

Merritt is particular about words, and his album title is meant to evoke emotional as well as musical distortion—the dissonance of heartache and alienation and long, lonely drink-marinated nights. In the album's best moments, the racket becomes mood music par excellence, capturing the spirit of Merritt's songs precisely. Sometimes—as in "Zombie Boy," where Merritt takes an undead lover—the effect is comic-macabre. And then there are the big ballads: "I'll Dream Alone," the stately "Old Fools," and the sublime mock-Christmas carol "Mr. Mistletoe," whose piano arpeggios tinkle beneath a snowstorm of static. In these songs, the ambient buzz of the Magnetic Fields achieves a real grandeur—it's goth like Chartres is goth.

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My nagging dissatisfaction with Distortion is that these moments are so few. Merritt's embrace of sonic novelty—from the zithers and ricky-ticky synthesizers on 69 Love Songs to the current album's feedbacking cellos—is of course admirable, and also smart, undercutting the classicism that might get quaint if played too musically straight. But slathering every song in undifferentiated white noise is a pretty hamfisted approach to record production—it's a gimmick, not a style. The vocals are often swallowed up in the mix, a problem with songs as lyrically fine-tuned as Merritt's. About halfway through the record, I found myself longing to hear cleaner, crisper versions of the same music: Too many of the excellent songs on Distortion succeed in spite of, rather then because of, the surrounding din.

My top choice for an Undistorted remake would be the lovely "Courtesans," a hymnlike ballad about hard-hearted society women that rises through its final chorus to deliver a sad and hilarious concluding punch line: "Courtesans don't believe in anybody but themselves/ And Santa Claus/ And Santa Claus/ And his 12 elves." In short, "Courtesans" delivers the uncanny shudder you get, once in a while, from a truly beautiful pop song. And that, when you get right down to it, is the stunt of stunts.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.