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Magnetic Fields

Polarizing Figure

Magnetic Fields 2Stephin Merritt has a bubblegum goth band (The Gothic Archies), a science fiction electro-pop band (The Future Bible Heroes), a project where every song is sung by a different singer (The 6ths), and a band whose last two releases were a triple album of love songs and an album of songs whose titles begin with the letter “I” (The Magnetic Fields). It’s tempting to call him music’s conceptual artist extraordinaire.

To do so, however, would be to typecast a singer and songwriter who does everything he can to avoid being categorized. “I often think that getting rid of musical genres would be more important than establishing world peace,” Merritt says in his world-weary bass baritone. Distortion, the new Magnetic Fields album, is “not a concept album in any way,” he explains. This despite the fact that it is designed to sound just like Psychocandy, The Jesus and Mary Chain’s seminal noise-pop album, which, when released in North America in 1986, prompted the New York Times to call it “a high-concept album which demands that listeners consider the thought behind the songs as well as the songs themselves.”

Nonetheless, Merritt himself, on the phone from New York where he’s been enjoying “a spectacular gothic rainstorm,” avers that Distortion’s defining feature is simply its “uniform production style. But almost all albums have uniform production styles; in fact, only Magnetic Fields records don’t — except this one.”

Changing sounds throughout a project, as in The Magnetic Fields’ mammoth 69 Love Songs (1999), can be a chore; Merritt set out to record Distortion quickly, using the same studio set-up throughout. While brothers Jim and William Reid relied on standard rock-band instrumentation for Psychocandy, Merritt adds cello, piano, and accordion, miking each instrument so that it would feed back and produce gales of noise.

It seems in a sense a perverse exercise. Compared to Distortion, Merritt notes, “Metallica has clarity. In fact, compared to this one, Psychocandy has clarity. But I don’t believe in realism. I think if something sounds like you just pointed a microphone at an instrument and what you’re hearing really is the way it is, that’s probably an illusion.

“There’s no right and wrong way to record an electric guitar, so if you record these other instruments in essentially the same way, why not? Where is the distortion, in fact? What is being distorted if there is no original?”

On one level, Distortion takes the idea that every recording alters the sound of an original instrument, and cranks it up to 11. On another, the album builds tension between Merritt’s songs – which incorporate his signature literary vignettes, unexpected rhymes, melancholy and sardonic mirth – and the primal, disorienting waves of feedback in which they’re bathed.

The album is comprised of “a bunch of songs that weren’t intended to be recorded this way,” says Merritt, citing the forlorn Christmas waltz, “Mr. Mistletoe,” and the “early twentieth-century song,” “Old Souls,” as “the most extreme examples” of this aesthetic clash. On the surface, it would seem fairly easy to take innocent melodies and rough them up.

Surprisingly, then, The Magnetic Fields’ drummer and keyboardist, Claudia Gonson, calls Distortion “the most through-composed and orchestrated of all our records.” Gonson, who befriended Merritt back in high school in Boston and now manages his career, explains that during the recording, each of the other members “walked in, got our sheet music, sat down, and left. It was very much like clockwork.”

The mixing process, she adds, took “forever” – evidently it’s an arduous process to mess something up in exactly the right way (as with The Jesus and Mary Chain’s artfully tousled hairdos).

Yet the Reid brothers never gave the impression of working too hard on their craft – during their mid-‘80s heyday, the Scotsmen were best known for their shambolic, drug-and-alcohol-fuelled concerts, which often lasted well under a half-hour and ended in riots. The Magnetic Fields don’t plan to emulate their noise-pop forebears outside of the studio. After all, Merritt is a famously non-rock’n’roll frontman who owns a Chihuahua and sports an all-brown wardrobe. What’s more, he wouldn’t be able to stand the stage volume, as he suffers from hyperacusis (hypersensitivity to sound).

According to Gonson, “the joke that underlay Disortion is that he made an extremely loud album.” On tour in 2004, the band experimented with hissing and snapping as alternate forms of applause, but audiences apparently felt “chastened or punished.” Eventually, they gave up, and Merritt “just put his fingers in his ears. … We would tell the audience, ‘Please don’t take this personally. It’s because he’s in pain; it’s not because he doesn’t like you.’”

For now, the band will play only a short series of dates in the U.S. Still, fans shouldn’t despair, as Merritt intends to set aside his other projects to record a new Magnetic Fields album in the near future.

“I would expect that no matter what it sounds like,” he sighs, “it will be given a concept – if not by me, then by the very first person who hears it, just because of the expectation that there will be one. I don’t know how far out of my way I could possibly go to avoid having a concept, so rather than try, I think I’ll just sit back and find out what the concept is later.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Jan 22, 2008


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