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The Magnetic Fields and The Disturbance in the Force

Stephen Merritt's parade of song makes a pitstop at the pawn shop and picks up some amps on The Magnetic Fields' aptly named Distortion

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: January, 2008
like a tape in the jambox of a bored desk worker at the Guggenheim Bilbao on a rainy Tuesday in the off-season
by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: January, 2008
like a tape in the jambox of a bored desk worker at the Guggenheim Bilbao on a rainy Tuesday in the off-season

The Magnetic Fields

I've been thinking a lot lately about The Times (not the paper, but the era, the Now) and what do we have to show for them? What does anybody ever have to show for them? Did screaming teenagers at the airport swooning over the Beatles think this is a defining moment of culture? If they did, were they right? I am of the opinion that the best era for music, for art, for everything is Now, because it is the only time that has potential. Everything else is at best freshly dead, and mostly existing only in faded and distorted memory. Tomorrow perpetually fails to exist until it's too late and all we have is now. I wish I was a younger man with a dour Goth girl to lay all this on.

But railing against the waves of nostalgia is as pointless as Emperor Xerxes bullwhipping the ocean for sinking his ships. The times are pyramids, sonic piles of the dead, mathematically exact even with eons of weathering with us at the point at the top. You'd think there would be something with more grandeur perched atop the triangle of labor and death, but no, it's just us.

I've in the past looked to Stephen Merritt of Magnetic Fields in times like these where cynicism and optimism cross swords. 69 Love Songs is a Vorlagenarbeit of these vectors, a summit of pop conceptualism. He took the titular limit 69 as a bracket and wrote love song after love song to fill that number with likely a 69% success rate. His follow up to that, 2004's I - fourteen songs all starting with the letter i, tracked in alphabetical order, all played on handheld instruments - had some great songs on it, but the conceptual rigor of it felt a little forced, evidenced by the fact that the stand out track "I Don't Believe You" was rearranged and fleshed out in superior form on the single. Still though, it's a good effort, and at least somebody is thinking about what they are doing.

Apparently, in the four years past, he's been digging through the records of his youth, or maybe my youth, I don't know how old Merritt is, and emerges with Distortion - rife with buzz and fuzz and glimmer like Oasis, Jesus and Mary Chain and Teenage Fanclub. The Stephen Sondheim of the liberal arts graduate set has made his power pop record. It's pretty good in its architectural haziness. The guitars tremolo and delay themselves quickly into overtones on tracks like "Too Drunk To Dream" like a tape in the jambox of a bored desk worker at the Guggenheim Bilbao on a rainy Tuesday in the off-season, teenage abandon arcing up among all that titanium and leaky ceilings, bouncing around like ghosts.

They never exactly rock out, because that's just not what Magnetic Fields do. They do issue clever songs of bad timing and difficult lovers rendered in a wall of sound, like Phil Spector in a blimp hangar. "I'll Dream Alone"and "Mr. Mistletoe" are glowing examples. His knack for a perfect pop melody still bleeds through on "California Girls" turning the Brain Wilson dynamics on its tanned ass building up to I hate California Girls at the terminus of each verse. "Three-Way" is all Ventures-meets-Ride grind on a groove with the occassional Tequila-esque shout of three-way! The perfect approach to exploring the subject, actually.

This record doesn't quite meet the glory of that which it imitates because Merritt's, erm, merits lie in clever lyrics and turns of phrase, and the music often fights against it. The three-minute symphonies worked because the basic songs themselves were not really symphony material, but were exploded to symphonic proportions, and this is also the power in power-pop, exchanging distortion pedals and reverb for banks of guitarists and string sections and tambourine brigades. The Magnetic Fields are maybe just a little too clever to take full advantage of the arsenal they direct. In a New York interview, Merritt once said, "I want to be able to do what I'm doing on a bigger scale, and if I feel like having an orchestra, I'd like to be able to snap my fingers and have it happen that day. I don't particularly like orchestral music, so it's not much of a constraint for me. But it is a constraint not to have an enormous apartment with reverb chambers and an empty swimming pool where I can record the drums if I want to." Perhaps, the ukulele and the glockenspiel and keyboard throbs of previous releases are all the resources he needs, and we should let the racket of the past echo through the rafters and fade out on its own.

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Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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