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The Magnetic Fields Release the Perfect Winter Album

Mychal Stanley | Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stephin Merritt, the frontman for The Magnetic Fields, has an incredible talent in writing pop tunes.

It’s strange, then, that he writes some of the most melancholy, self-deprecating pop songs out there. Nothing has changed in his new release, “Distortion,” where Merritt and co-vocalist Claudia Gonson sing about being rejected, lonely or drunk.

But if this all sounds too much like a Notre Dame winter, a lot of the subject matter is handled with some humor. In “Too Drunk to Dream,” Merritt sings the benefits of being drunk as opposed to being sober (Sober / nobody wants you / S***faced / they’re all undressing), concluding that he needs to get too drunk to dream about a absent lover.

Gonson sings in “The Nun’s Litany” as a nun thinking about missed opportunities, paths she could’ve went down and what it would be like to be a “dominatrix / which isn’t like me / but I can dream,” among other things.

In the best song on the album, Merritt laments spending Christmas alone in the form of a hate letter to that dread plant, mistletoe itself. “Mr. Mistletoe” is probably the best song about an emotion a lot of people feel on Christmas, and it’s done with a brooding humor that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

Where else can you hear a deep-voiced man dejectedly opine, “O Mr. Mistletoe / wither and die / you useless weed / for no one have I.” It’s this unique kind of pop songwriting mentality that sustains and has maintained The Magnetic Fields’ relevance.

This album, however, is much more than just the great songwriting that is typical of The Magnetic Fields. The name of the record is very literal, and every song is accompanied by swirling torrents of guitar distortion and noise. It’s not enough to be distracting, instead providing a luxurious soundscape to disappear into when you put on your headphones.

Other than the layer of distortion, The Magnetic Fields’ usual sound has not changed. Merritt is obsessed with pop song structure, especially from the 1960s. He specializes in breaking down the formula to its most basic and catchy components.

Underneath the noise, minimalist piano plunking, basic guitar chords and Merritt’s deep bass or Gonson’s sweet childlike voice don’t revolutionize or advance the sound of the band. The distortion may add a new sheen, but really, the band is just doing what it has been doing for years. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

The Magnetic Fields provide some of their catchiest tunes on this record, and you will find it difficult not to get swept away by some of their indelible hooks. Merritt has perfected the structure of a good pop song, and he knows how to lay down great tunes and words around them in tidy three-minute portions.

If you’ve never heard of The Magnetic Fields, you’re in for a treat because “Distortion” perfectly accompanies these gloomy winter days. The swirling distortion is the perfect soundtrack to the swirling rain and snow.

The distant instruments feel exactly how sound is muffled in the winter air. The Magnetic Fields have put out an album that could very easily become the soundtrack of your life, especially during these sad, cold, lonely days of winter.