Their hearts are free / their hearts are free / how avant garde.
—“Courtesans”, The Magnetic Fields, sung by Shirley Simms
Each Stephin Merritt album is also an idea. The Magnetic Fields’ epic 69 Love Songs is the most obvious example, but before it he made albums that were, in concept, American road music (The Charm of the Highway Strip) and summertime vacation songs (Holiday). After it he made i, where each song started with the letter “i”, and a collection of showtunes titled Showtunes. It’s not that The Charm of the Highway Strip was a purebred country album, or that the songs were much different than his others. Rather, it used tropes from country within Merritt’s trademark songwriting style. Filmmaker Hal Hartley has referred to his 2005 film The Girl From Monday as “fake sci-fi”. Highway Strip was “fake country”. Merritt uses genre as style, celebrating the form while mocking the perceived purity of it. 69 Love Songs did the same with the age-old tradition of the love ballad, within multiple “genres”, from blues to punk. He wrote anti-love songs disguised as love songs. He wrote love songs that playfully fought against the inherent precepts of the ‘love song’ form, from within.
In that same manner, the eighth Magnetic Fields album, Distortion, is Merritt’s fake rock ‘n’ roll album. As the title indicates, each song is drenched in distortion, a la the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, which Merritt has cited as inspiration. The cloud of noise surrounding the songs may, in the abstract, bring to mind some leather-jacketed, sneering rockers, but the melodies are as pop as anything he’s done. Catchy melodies are supported by giddy harmony vocals everywhere, even though they’re not the first thing you notice. At a songwriting level, Distortion is not that different from Merritt’s previous work. There are bouncy bubblegum tunes and stately ballads, with Merritt’s dry sense of humor, worship of words, and way with melody on display, as usual. Recorded differently, these songs could have slipped onto 69 Love Songs or i. The fact that Merritt alternates lead vocals with Shirley Simms, one of the vocalists on 69 Love Songs, only makes that clearer.
There are some rock tropes. The mostly instrumental first song, “Three-Way”, rides a guitar hook like a surf-rock song. Elsewhere guitars and other instruments take feedback-drenched solos. Significant, though, is what those other instruments are. An album of distortion makes you think of guitars and amps, but the instruments are essentially the same that the band has been playing for years: guitar, accordion, cello, piano and drums. How they got loud, grating feedback sounds out of some of those instruments is no doubt a fascinating story.
The constant, hovering noise is its own character in the album, its own presence. Yet the instruments used makes the listening experience richer than if it were just straight-up guitar feedback. Besides being a jaunty one-word sex romp, “Three-Way” introduces this approach well. Within the fog of noise, there are strange sounds, some identifiable and some not. The moment when a distorted piano bangs out a few notes is breathtaking the first time around. Two songs later, on “Old Fools”, there’s a similar moment with an accordion, where you go from hearing pure noise around a tune to clearly identifying an accordion, without the noise leaving. It makes me wonder whether by the 20th listen to Distortion I’ll be hearing all of the instruments clearly, all of the time. Is this what rock ‘n’ roll sounded like the first time around, like absolute noise? And over the years, your ears adjust. Psychocandy starts to sound like easy listening.
There is a nasty, biting side to Distortion‘s lyrics that, together with the noise, could be seen as a rebellious, “rock” statement. The protagonist of “California Girls” describes using an axe to murder the rich teenagers of the title, echoing Sonic Youth’s “we’re gonna kill the California girls” lyric. In “Zombie Boy”, ritual sacrifice leads to necrophilia. “The Nun’s Litany” is indeed a litany, of all the sexier career paths the nun wants to take: Playboy bunny, brothel worker, porno star. “I long to be a cobra dancer / with little willie between my thighs,” Simms sings, sounding more cute than sultry. The album ends with a sweet tribute to “Courtesans”, who can sleep with anyone without feeling the heartbreak. There’s a bit of a songwriting joke there as well, as courtesans can say “a few kind words / they need not rhyme”. And rhyming is part of Merritt’s technique, as it has been for so many songwriters throughout time. At least two of the songs here are in their essence lists of rhyming synonyms. “Please Stop Dancing” is a fun sing-along variation on that game, with Merritt and Simms singing back and forth lines that also seem like a pop versus rock joke, like the words of a wanna-be rock star whose songs keep coming out as pop: “Please stop dancing in my soul / I can’t make it rock n’ roll.”
That line pokes fun at the supposed ideal of rock ‘n’ roll, as does much of Distortion. This “rock” music has a laugh at rock conventions, and at the notion of the Magnetic Fields as a rock band. Merritt sings “Old Fools” like a serious, morose ballad, but its lyrics decry old fools taking young lovers…much like adults playing rock n’ roll, the young person’s music. “Too Drunk to Dream”, its title ringing of Dead Kennedys, is about getting as drunk and high as possible. But why? To cover up heartbreak, to chase away the memory of the lover who left. It’s quintessential Merritt, then. The song’s opening section, a comparison list between being “sober” and “shit-faced”, details the reasons life’s better when you’re wasted: “sober nobody wants you / shit-faced they’re all undressing”. In doing so, it evokes the image of lonely, would-be rock n’ rollers imagining the partying lifestyle that would wash away the pain. Rock is a dream. One of the album’s most heartbreaking lost-love ballads, “I’ll Dream Alone”, frames dreams in harsh terms, as Merritt sings, “Dreams, we had a few / but what kind of dream beats you black and blue?”
“Courtesans” ends the album with wishes of freedom, another concept associated with rock ‘n’ roll. That’s nearly bookended with “California Girls”, which pokes a finger at the narcissistic, capitalistic freedom of the title characters. Simms sings, “They breathe coke / and they have affairs with each passing rock song.” The duality of those songs is much like the album, fascinated by the power of noise while mocking it.
The impression of wildness that distortion and volume provide is always fodder for critics who long for music that feels young and reckless. Psychocandy will always be the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “classic”, just as The Modern Lovers will be Jonathan Richman’s. Distortion distorts perception. The “rock” angle will no doubt make Distortion the most celebrated Stephin Merritt album since 69 Love Songs. But what’s brilliant about Distortion is how it plays into that mythology while also ripping it down. The fakeness of the album illustrates the falseness of the “rock” ideal and asks questions about what genre really means. It also indulges in the pleasures of the form of rock, that very volume and noise. Meanwhile, Merritt does what he always does. He writes clever songs that are sweet and bitter, comforting and subversive.