Magnetic Fields

Distortion (Nonesuch)

The earliest albums released by the Magnetic Fields (particularly 1995's Get Lost) featured burbling synth-pop in the vein of OMD and Soft Cell, long before such new-wave influences were prevalent or trendy. Perhaps that's why Distortion, the eighth Magnetic Fields release and a fantastic return to these electro roots, feels so nostalgic. Soft-glow reverb coats the album's songs — think Phil Spector's lush Wall of Sound, or early Jesus and Mary Chain — which makes them fuzzy with wistfulness and regret, like a collection of sepia-toned photos. Layers of minor-chord keyboards drive “Xavier Says,” while “Please Stop Dancing” sounds like the Human League on a cloudy day. “Too Drunk to Dream” is a typical Stephin Merritt musical-theater vamp which begins with him monotoning, “Sober, life is a prison/Shit-faced, it is a blessing/Sober, nobody wants you/Shit-faced, they're all undressed.” Merritt's clever gender- and genre-bending lyrics aren't quite as shtick-laden as on past releases — although the inscrutable “Three-Way” (whose only lyrics are, natch, a cheery shout of “Three-way!”) needs only new-wave beats and jaunty desert-gulch guitar riffs to be the catchiest thing on the album. Indeed, Distortion is by far the poppiest collection of songs Merritt has released since 69 Love Songs — partly because of the songwriting, and partly because Merritt lets Claudia Gonson (technically a more proficient singer) take lead vocals on more tunes. And when he does sing, his droll, wizard-on-high vocals exhibit glorious world-weariness — as on the taffy-pulled “Mr. Mistletoe,” a wonderful sad-clown tale about trudging into the twilight of life.

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