Concocting outré underground pop for more than a decade doesn't necessarily shield you from being unjustly mistaken for easily digestible by the mainstream press. Following the reception of the last Magnetic Fields album—2004's i, a non-electro, less sonically bizarre outing than 1999's 69 Love Songs—insanely prolific, Eeyore-voiced bard Stephin Merritt found something that disagreed with his preferred public rep.
"I think it was Entertainment Weekly," he says. "It had one of its columns that said, if you like A, you will like B. And, it said, 'If you like Frank Sinatra, you will like the Magnetic Fields.' And I thought, 'Impressionable teenagers are reading this magazine; I should probably do something about this.' I went back to what-your-parents-don't-like officially and did an album of what-your-parents-don't-like.'"
Well, Merritt actually revisited what his parents didn't like. For the Magnetic Fields' eighth album, the January-released Distortion, he sought sound advice from The Jesus and Mary Chain's 1984 noise-rock parade Psychocandy, which, he says, was the first album to unveil a canyon between his and his mother's tastes. A major precursor to later ear-wrecking shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine and noise-lovin' popsters like Yo La Tengo, Psychocandy sets loose tidal waves of Velvet Underground-inspired feedback in betwixt pretty pop melodies. In 21st-century terms, the album's shimmering opener, "Just Like Honey," spiked the existential haze hanging over Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson's sad-eyed finale in Lost in Translation.
To build this wall of sound, Merritt used a chest of fairly unusual tools. A longtime collector of odd instruments and an ingenious DIY producer, Merritt recorded what he had on hand. He transformed his classically trained chamber pop ensemble—Claudia Gonson, Daniel Handler and John Woo—into a screechy rock band pushing dingy psychedelia. Never using distortion boxes, Merritt ran the guitar and cello through cigarette-pack-sized Smokey Amplifiers, and built custom feedback rigs for the organ, accordion and piano. As such, a wash of noise underpins every song on Distortion, along with a very J&MC drumbeat (heavily reverbed and deceptively rudimentary).
Merritt's smartypants songwriting, stacked with silly and maudlin rhymes, is intact, but the album takes longer to digest than usual Merritt efforts. Repeated listens find gems like "Too Drunk to Dream," a self-pitying, potty-mouthed laugh, as well as "Please Stop Dancing in My Mind" and "Drive On, Driver," which feature 69 Love Songs vet Shirley Simms on vocals.
The first inclination is to think of Distortion as a joke, the punch line being that Merritt—whose lyrical characters usually gulp down drugs in response to the tortures of unrequited love, and often for the sake of comic relief—has rarely participated in such conspicuously druggy music. He responds with some finer points.
"I think that the drug associations are twice removed—once removed by the time you get to Psychocandy," he says. "But Psychocandy is a mixture of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound with the first Velvet Underground album, especially the song 'Heroin.' And the drug that it would be associated with is heroin, because of the eternal association of shrill, distorted guitar with heroin. I gather from heroin addict friends that in fact it sounds really great to have shrill, distorted guitars to sort of simulate the feeling of rush. But I don't think that The Jesus and Mary Chain were actually going for that. I think that was a quote. And certainly, when we do it, it's a huge quote—but just, as modern psychedelic music never has anything to do with actual psychedelic drugs."
It's funny. But, then again, Merritt's songwriting has always incorporated a great deal of humor. What saves his music from being merely a novelty act—including bold excursions like Distortion—is that, like all great songwriters, Merritt reveals real emotional truth in consistently fresh ways, and when it comes to laughs, he knows when to pull the trigger.
"I don't really expect to be taken seriously," he says. "Because if I wanted to be taken seriously I would have to put more work into avoiding being funny. Most of my favorite kinds of humor are really based on just a casual attitude toward whether or not something is funny, rather than trying to be hilarious at all times. I tend to find actual comedy movies particularly exhausting. Even if they are funny. And tiring after a while beating you over the head with humor."
Merritt says that Distortion, like Magnetic Fields' truth-in-advertising titles of the past, is named in part to poke at journalists.
"I like to think of it as the titles performing a sort of defense of the album," Merritt says. "Like 69 Love Songs: You can't criticize 69 Love Songs for containing only love songs because the whole title tells you that already. And you can't criticize i for all the titles beginning with the letter I because it tells you that already. So Distortion is able to have a pretty extravagant production style, but since it's called Distortion, you can't really critique the production style. For example, if I couldn't really think of anything good to do for the next album, I could just put a lot of bad songs together and call it Bad Songs. And I suppose every review would say, 'the aptly named Bad Songs...' but then they would go on to take it seriously, because that's how titles work."
Despite Merritt's cat-and-mouse with the press, the Tin Pan Alley comparisons aren't unwarranted. The openly gay songwriter's skill and ambition have led him far away from the lo-fi indie pop world from whence he came, and though his subject matter has a clear contemporary edge, complete with nonstop gender bending and obsessive self-deprecation, his songs often inhabit the romantic elegance of the old-school crooners. In addition to his numerous projects—The Future Bible Heroes, The Gothic Archies and The 6ths—Merritt has found work scoring musical theater and children's songs.
And while he's using Distortion to steer clear of the adult contemporary section, like all Magnetic Fields' albums, the recording can't be replicated live.
"No. In fact we are very, very quiet," he says of Magnetic Fields' concerts. "We never get complaints about our being too loud, only too quiet."
He gives a list of reasons for why the albums don't translate, including his hearing damage, which doesn't allow live drums, and the fact that he and Gonson can't play all the instruments in person that they do on the album.
But strip down Distortion, and Merritt's mission to be thoroughly inappropriate remains. Try the album's second half, which includes "Zombie Boy," about which Merritt says: "Yeah, I wanted to have a sort of offensive song. Something that would combine pedophilia, necrophilia, racism, transvestism, cultural appropriation and imperialism." And "The Nun's Litany," on which a sister daydreams out loud about becoming a topless waitress, a dominatrix and a porn star.
But, Merritt says, when it comes to rebellion, volume is the key.
"People don't really listen to lyrics," he says. "They don't get offended by anything you say in a quiet voice."