The Magnetic Fields have been around the indie block for almost two decades but, as of yet, have not managed to jettison their semi-significance to achieve the tried and true immortality of cult classicism. Their latest release, January's Distortion, promises little in the way of a breakthrough despite elements of the same consistently crafty songwriting.
The album opens promisingly enough. The slinky intro, "Three-way," is a texture-laden pop jewel, a playful, three-minute carnival riff that would have been effective as a simple instrumental but is made all the more mirthful by its one simplistic lyric: three emphatic shouts of every rambunctious teen comedy's decisive apogee, "three-way!"
Distortion's title does not lie. The album reverberates with fuzz and feedback, every track echoing with electricity. Through this dense fog, however, the album manages to be notable for having one of the most diverse sets of vocal performances in recent memory, alternating sporadically between poppy, clean Of Montreal vivaciousness and deep Morrissey articulations. For instance, "Old Fools" channels Joy Division while the next track, "Xavier Says," sounds like The Shins' James Mercer singing in an abandoned cathedral (oh, but again, with plenty of distortion). "Mr. Mistletoe" returns to Joy Division and drops the register even deeper, turning the drooping drone into a valium-induced Johnny Cash impersonation.
Distortion, as a whole, is ultimately smothered by all these influences. The problem the Magnetic Fields encounter is in the very solution of its sound. Frontman Stephin Merritt is such a music fan at heart, especially of 80s art-rock and electronic performers, that Distortion fails to establish a unique identity. He pays such calculated homage to his heroes that his own voice gets lost in the thicket of history lessons.
Merritt does, however, manage to leave a few savory bread crumbs along the way. One is "Till the Bitter End," a sexy, darkly beautiful waltz that is so emotive it is theatrical. Another is the sardonically chirpy second track, "California Girls," a song that will have any die-hard Beach Boys fan squirming in their seat. Merritt sneers at the age of plastic and pampered MTV-crowd socialites as he sings, "They come on like squares/
then get off like squirrels/ I hate California girls."
At the very least, joy is a contagious phenomenon, and Merritt sounds joyful enough to make any Distortion listener smile.
But if Merritt really wanted to honor his legends, he would create music that originated in his heart, not one that traveled there through a speaker. Until he accomplishes this, a readily-achieved smile will be the only response, followed by an equally-ready forgetfulness.