Magnetic Fields gives us a modern drinking ballad

    Stephin Merritt knows how to write a song about a threesome. You’ve got to keep it simple; it’s a simple concept. You can’t go harping on about love and wine. Make it fun, make it catchy and just yell “THREE-WAY!”

    Maybe I got it wrong, and the song is actually about a mouthwatering chili concoction. Either way, “Three-Way” is a delicious song to open Distortion, the latest disc from genius songwriter Stephin Merritt and his band The Magnetic Fields.

    Merritt is the front man of a string of bands including The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes. He might be best known for the epic three-disc conceptual album 69 Love Songs, or for the audiobook versions of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

    The Gothic Archies, a self-described “goth-bubblegum band,” performed the songs for Snicket. Maybe Merritt feels like he sold the Archies out, and that’s why Distortion, a Magnetic Fields disc, sounds like the Archies’ album The New Despair. Distortion sounds like the anesthetic wall of a benzodiazepine buzz. It’s heavily distorted.

    Too bad the distortion doesn’t work as well as it did on a couple tracks of The New Despair. Maybe it’s because Shirley Simms’ voice sounds too much like a prepubescent youth who didn’t get the video game she wanted for Christmas. On the tracks where Simms is whining, Merritt’s signature ironic lyrics lose their snarl and instead sound stupid. On “Please Stop Dancing,” Merritt and Simms sing a duet of teenage angst to each other: “Please stop dancing in my head / I have cried ’till I’m half dead.”

    Merritt’s untrained bass voice can make those lovelorn songs work, so it’s rough that Simms shares the spotlight in Distortion. In “Old Fools,” “I’ll Dream Alone” and “Mr. Mistletoe,” Merritt’s distinctive purr sucks you into his love-lost atmosphere and won’t let you escape, until you hear Simms butting in again.

    The gleeful, Morrissey-like cynicism that echoes through so much of Merritt’s work isn’t so poignant in Distortion. But he doesn’t entirely let his loyal listeners down. We need a modern drinking ballad, and “Too Drunk to Dream” is perfect. There’s more than one kind of distortion, and I think Merritt nails it when he’s singing about alcohol:

    “Sober, life is a prison / Shitfaced it is a blessing. / Sober, nobody wants you / Shitfaced they’re all undressing…”


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