many of the reviews of the new magnetic fields album distortion spend too much time discussing the concept, or the distortion part of the concept, where stephin merritt set out to out-jesus and mary chain the jesus and mary chain. did stephin just want to show that he can rock, so that he can show that tasteful lincoln center slash npr audience that he isn’t just like them? he may suffer from hyperacusis in one ear, but that has never kept him from spending many an evening in a loud gay bar, at least in my experience. remember how the critics all hated belle and sebastian (well, some of them) until B&S made a record that wanted to rock (they even tried to sound like thin lizzy), and the critics proclaimed such albums their best ever? I have a feeling that there’s a little bit of that going on here. it’s just a magnetic fields record. not the best, not the worst. it’s what stephin merritt does.
I should confess: I really had issues with this record when I first heard it. it has grown on me a bit, but I still find parts of it difficult. the songs are catchy, the lyrics witty, etc. but it feels a little heartless too. also, it made me think about the idea of out-jesus and mary chaining the jesus and mary chain and I figure that is what the entire slumberland label was all about. so what do you think? who would win in a distortion contest? black tambourine or the magnetic fields? (pam berry once sang with the 6ths in a live performance, of course, and let’s not forget the band that stephin and pam were once in: fox inc. they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses…) hard to say… either way it is going to be interesting seeing how the magnetic fields upcoming shows are going to be played: loud, quiet, quietly loud? black tambourine shows were famous for the music drowning out the singer. did anyone see the reformed jesus and mary chain in the past year? do they live with their mum like so many other aging popstars in the british isles?
photograph: gail o’hara, dutchess county, NY, 2002.