Magnetic Fields tugging in a different direction

[31 October 2008]

By Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

As the lodestar of Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt has exerted an insistent tug on indie-pop since 1990 by crafting simple, clean, melodic songs that lean heavily on keyboards.

But for “Distortion,” Magnetic Fields eighth CD since 1990, Merritt has discarded the orchestral-pop tack of previous Magnetic Fields albums, opting to pay homage to Jesus and Mary Chain’s influential, abrasive guitar reverb- and feedback-drenched 1985 debut, “Psychocandy.”

“I wanted to make a record quickly, and I thought an homage to ‘Psychocandy’ would be a good way to do it,” says Merritt during a phone chat from Los Angeles. “Each instrument would be (played) at the point of feedback, and after that, there were not that many decisions to make. I had the songs, I just needed a recording style.” (He calls the end result “bubble-gum Goth.”)

A little later in the conversation, however, Merritt reveals another, more quixotic reason he was drawn to “Psychocandy.”

“Remember when there was generation gap, and your parents couldn’t understand your music?” he asks “The Jesus and Mary Chain were pretty much the last stand. They were pretty much the last thing my mother didn’t understand. ...

“Hip-hop is pretty much accessible (to both age groups), except if the performer is yelling; adults don’t like it, and teenagers do. And most teenagers like heavy metal, and adults like the metal they listened to as teenagers.”

Merritt has several other bands, including Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths and the Gothic Archies, which in 2006 released a CD to accompany Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket books, “The Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events.”

But at the moment he has reconvened Magnetic Fields for a rare tour. “I swore I’d never to do it again,” he says of touring.

Merritt intensely dislikes playing live. “You can’t edit live performances, so it’s always wrong,” he recently told the Denver Post. Another reason for his aversion: He has hyperacusis in his left ear, so everyday noises sound unbearably loud.

“Live, we sound nothing like our albums,” says Merritt. “There’s no drums, bass or amplification. It’s going to be an acoustic show. We will be the quietest pop group you ever heard. It will be the volume level of a string quartet.”

This time out, Merritt sings and plays bouzouki (a Greek stringed instrument. Claudia Gonson (piano), John Woo (acoustic guitar), Sam Davol (cello) and Shirley Simms (vocals) round out the band.

Though “Distortion” has a murky patina and superficially desolate vibe, Merritt’s bright melodies and twisted tales are lurking just below the surface.

Case in point: The genial-sounding “California Girls,” sung by Simms. At first it seems like a churlish assault on shallow Left Coast women obsessed with physical beauty and sex. But Merritt indicates there is a sinister undercurrent at work. “No one thinks that song applies to herself,” he says. “Nor is it intended to describe a real group of people. It’s about the protagonist, who is an extremely unreliable narrator. Psychotic, even.”

Speaking of unhinged, there’s “Zombie Boy,” a funereal tune about a fetid, decomposing corpse that Merritt croons in his best Leonard Cohen-like deadpan. Adding an extra spike to the horror, the song’s protagonist turns the title character into a drag queen, dressing him in silk slips, high heels and mink stoles.

“I don’t know if you can be called a drag queen if you’re dead,” Merritt says laconically. “He’s not semi-conscious, he’s just dead, animated electromagically by this mad scientist. ... It’s just a putrid corpse being treated like a sex toy, a worst-case scenario for necrophilia.”

What inspired the song? “The letter Z,” replies Merritt, who in 2004 wrote an entire album of songs, “i,” that begin with the letter I. “And I wanted to write a zombie song.”

Another example of Merritt’s provocative black-hearted whimsy comes in “The Nun’s Litany,” which Simms sings innocently and earnestly, portraying a sister who fantasizes about jobs including a Playboy bunny, topless waitress, cobra dancer, porno actress, brothel worker and tattooed lady.

“The litany of things she wishes she can do are largely unpleasant, degrading, boring things women don’t like to do,” explains Merritt. “But it’s better than working in a cloister.

“I was raised Tibetan Buddhist, so when I think of nuns I don’t think of Catholic nuns,” he adds. “My mother, who was an English teacher, was raised Catholic, so when I was in kindergarten and first grade, I was sent to Catholic school, which was a big mistake, because I was already a no-(B.S.) kind of kid. In the communes where I lived we had Tibetan Buddhist nuns called Anis. I am originally from New York and have spent some time in Boston, but this one commune was in Vermont.”

Suddenly, Merritt changes gears. “Actually, (the song) is all about me, people like me, wishing that one didn’t have one’s repressions, however good an idea they actually are. In real life, I’m glad I’m not a Playboy bunny.”

Merritt’s meditations on love can be unexpectedly tragic, as on “Drive On, Driver,” or malignantly comical, as on “Too Drunk to Dream,” which he describes as “a country song recorded in front of a vacuum cleaner.”

When he writes a lyric, “generally I look for drama, some sort of clash, something rubbing between two things,” he says.

But that the conflict does not always need to be apparent, he says.

“The Carpenters, musically, were extremely smooth as can be and were originally considered vanilla and uninteresting. But people were not paying attention. The lyrics were filled with Greek tragedy, and (Karen Carpenter’s) singing, if you listen through it, was unbearably sad. She is one of the great voices of the 20th century, but in her time she was thought to be lightweight, which now seems bizarre.”

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