This past fall, NPR chose Stephin Merritt to inaugurate"Project Song," a radio series in which a musician is challenged to compose and record a new song in two days. They picked the right guy. Merritt, the singer-songwriter behind the Magnetic Fields and various spinoff bands, is a compulsive musical stuntman—the indie-pop David Blaine. He is apparently incapable of making a straightforward album; his discography is clogged with concept records, gimmicks, and other whimsical (and sometimes, gratuitous) displays of virtuosity and stamina. He recorded a collection of songs whose titles all begin with the letter I, sequenced in alphabetical order from "I Die" to "It's Only Time." Under the nom de guerre the 6ths, he released two "Stephin Merritt tribute albums," featuring a different lead vocalist on each track. In 2006, another of Merritt's moonlighting projects, the Gothic Archies, put out The Tragic Treasury, an anthology of "goth bubblegum"songs written by Merritt for the audiobook editions of Daniel Handler's best-selling children's stories A Series of Unfortunate Events. And, of course, there is Merritt's 1999 tour de force, 69 Love Songs, a sprawling three-CD set that he originally conceived for a "theatrical revue starring four drag queens."
Merritt is a devotee of the Great American Songbook—he named his Chihuahua Irving, after Berlin—and all his records are, in spirit, imaginary musicals. But Merritt's serial stunt artistry is mainly a matter of temperament. He writes brilliant, droll, depressive lyrics and sings in an affectless monotone—the voice of a man who has exceeded the recommended daily dose of NyQuil by a dozen teaspoons. He's a poet of ennui, and it seems that, in life as in art, he's bored by most things, including his own genius. The recording of a regular old CD may simply be too banal a prospect to stir Merritt from his spiritual sickbed.
The latest Magnetic Fields release is another stunt, with a twist. The album is called Distortion, and, with the exception of the drums, every instrument on the record—guitar, cello, accordion, piano—is swamped in feedback. Merritt being Merritt, the music carries a further layer of conceptual baggage. He has described Distortion as an homage to Scottish rockers Jesus and Mary Chain, whose 1985 debut Psychocandy broke new sonic ground, submerging girl-group pop melodies in roaring guitar noise. A straight pastiche would have been boring, but luckily the Magnetic Fields are incapable of replicating Psychocandy's squall. Even with the gain setting on their amplifiers maxed out, they are a poky little chamber-pop group—beneaththebillows of fuzz, you can hear Merritt and friends plinking along, as dainty as ever. It's a unique sound: the cutest darn metal machine music you've ever heard.
The closest the band comes to rock is the album's one-two opening punch: "Three-Way," a clattering surf-rock-style instrumental, and "California Girls," which, like half the songs on Distortion, is sung by longtime Merritt sidekick Sally Simms. Merritt has been spending more time in Los Angeles (where he owns a house), and "California Girls" is a black valentine to Tinseltown, a specialty of expatriate New York songwriters since Berlin and his Tin Pan Alley colleagues first washed up on the coast to compose for movie musicals in the 1930s. The song's satire of L.A. airheads is a bit broad by Merritt's standards, but the tune, hurtled forward by a thundercrack backbeat, has a grand Phil Spectorian swoop to it. And Merritt gets off some tightly rhymed jabs: "I have planned my grand attacks/ I will stand behind their backs/ With my brand new battleaxe. … They will hear me say, as the pavement whirls/ I hate California girls."
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.
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.