Jim and William Reid — two Scottish brothers who have been the Jesus and Mary Chain for more than two decades — wound up a beloved, semipopular adjunct to rock history by ripping off rock history rather shamelessly. Mostly, it was from the tougher-than-leather '60s garage rock icons or the bouffant-sporting bubblegum girls of the same era. The reason for the affection in the Anglophilic underground is a brilliantly cheap trick, one that worked perfectly at least 15 times on their debut album, 1985's Psychocandy: shoving that stolen pop into the blast furnace of postpunk art rock. Feedback not only sounded cool, but it helped obscure their songwriting deficiencies and added some much-needed abrasive novelty to their secondhand teenage kicks. A win-win combination, and something they then spent the rest of their career twisting away from.
Stephin Merritt has never been much interested in borrowing so blatantly, but it helps that he's such a singular self-creation-cum-caricature himself. Since the early '90s, his band, the Magnetic Fields, has plied one of indie-rock's most idiosyncratic mixes: Merritt's throwback Cole Porter/Irving Berlin wordplay, his cadaverous baritone alternating with female collaborators airing out the crypt, and a sound like twee thrift-store synth pop. So you'd never mistake him for a surly Nuggets devotee, and though he's chameleonic enough to draw from country to ragtime through at least 67 other songwriting modes, he's also not a guy known for glomming onto pre-existing personae of well-known alt-rock faves, even to recontextualize them.
All of which is why it's been surprising to see Merritt talking up the Jesus and Mary Chain something fierce in recent interviews. Gushing, even. And even without his personal pre-release PR push, Merritt's flattery of the Reid brothers would be evident from the opening noisy note of the Magnetic Fields' newest, Distortion. "Three-Way" announces the first Fields record in four years with a twanging guitar, a sunny surf city beat, and, in the background, the sound of Merritt and a circular saw having their way with a stack of old Magnetic Fields LPs. Yes, as many clever folks have already noted, the title of Merritt's rawest-ever effort is apt, even if its razzle-dazzle is really something like grainy, familiar scenes from the Super-8 world of '80s noise pop suddenly reborn in the disorienting (but smudgy) hi-def of digital video.
The Reids building a career on visual camouflage from Dylan, preening moves from Jagger, and drum licks and harmonies from Motown can be chalked up to youth or cockiness or lack of any better ideas. But Merritt is older, wittier, and with a substantial body of work already behind him in a highly distinctive voice. What reason does he have to so thoroughly swipe from a classic band like a lazy teenager? Judging by those interviews, it could be sheer fanboyism, but it also feels like a cheeky stopgap gambit to avoid repeating past glories, while an obvious shared fondness for Phil Spector gives him some terra firma while trying to reinvent himself. Distortion is full of poised little hooks pirouetting under the din and buzz, and that's pure Merritt, like a Broadway re-creation of a street-gang rumble compared to the real deal.
In many ways, the album is business as usual for fans, with the coed vocals and the winsome little harmonies and the arch wit delivered deadpan enough to make you wonder who's laughing at whom, even if you're now forced to dig the lyrics out from a sandstorm. (Helpful, considering the trick with writing a Magnetic Fields review is not letting your word count get away from you as you remember one more bon mot you'd like to include.) Likewise, Merritt sometimes makes sure his guitar and piano cut recognizable shapes into the music, but more often they're blurred into a rush like "Mr. Mistletoe," a song sung like a lovelorn '60s hairdresser dueting with his hairdryer, buoyed by an almost inaudible string melody.
The latter part is Merritt's own cheap trick, his subtle contribution to the evolution of someone else's sound. Early Jesus and Mary Chain was an irritant; even a tune as catchy as "You Trip Me Up" can still set your teeth on edge in the wrong mood, with piercing "riffs" that are unavailable on any online guitar tab repository. Despite occasionally getting a little too arid lyrically, Merritt is a born sensualist as an arranger — even his attempts at butch feedback end up cuddly. Distortion sounds inviting, often because of the "horrible" noise, which is lush in a way you'd expect from someone with years of experience at paying homage to '60s stereophonic studio pop on a four-track kit. Stopgap or no, Merritt's eccentric aesthetic sounds are wholly reinvigorated by his appropriation, and the ravishing borrowed texture of Distortion makes you think he should try slipping into another artist's shtick more often.Jess Harvell is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]