Thursday, May 1, 2008

Doing the twist

The Magnetic Fields
Score: 7

Distortion takes many forms on The Magnetic Fields' follow-up to 2004's i. Naturally, there's the noise component: reverb, feedback, collision, convergence. But there's also ideological distortion.

On "California Girls," and on many other memory-teasing pop songs, band leader Stephin Merritt scoops out the messages we thought we knew and pours in his own. Merritt rejects the Beach Boys' portrayal of California girls as beings worthy of lust and fascination, and he channels his contempt for their carefree lives into a song designed to evoke idyllic, early-'60s surf rock. Manipulating that fun-in-the-sun vibe, he assails California girls as vapid, cruel, social climbers embodying plastic perfection.

Though he wrote the song, collaborator Shirley Simms sings it, a gender switch that obfuscates the writer's identity and intent. It's no longer a man bashing women; it's a woman bashing women. Or is it? We never find out the character's gender. In any case, Simms' sweetness disguises the bitter lyrics, making the chorus, "I hate California girls," as inviting as a piece of cherry pie. And because of that, when the song enters "Scream" territory, implying the use of "battle ax" literally as well as figuratively, it doesn't jolt us.

Merritt uses these tactics throughout Distortion. For "Too Drunk to Dream," he turns what could have been a Saturday night party song into a bludgeoning night of drug abuse.

It's catchy.

Lyrically, though, it describes a vacuum of self-destruction. Similarly, "Drive On, Driver" soars on an REO Speedwagon-esque melody, despite being about a character crushed to learn that his inamorata (or her inamorata) has stood him (or her) up. The sexual ambiguity echoes the album cover, a symbol of a man attached to a background of hot pink, a symbolically feminine color.

Merritt is shrewd to alternate vocal duties with Simms, keeping his sepulchral bass from overwhelming the album's balance. His dour croak on "Old Fools" would be a heavy weight to bear if not for Simms' chipper foil on "The Nun's Litany." In that song, a nun has thoughts that would make her sisters run for confession. She says she longs for a life as, among other things, a topless waitress, a go-go dancer, a dominatrix and a porn star.

The fact that the longings of the nun were written by an openly gay man and routed out the mouth of a woman puts a number of twists on the song, and it opens the way for questions about gender politics and suppression in the name of religion. We gain perspective on the nun's wish to be a brothel worker when she adds, "I've always been treated like one."

Like the movie "Far from Heaven," Merritt's songs pull back history's whitewashed curtain to reveal all sorts of repressed realities: homosexuality, depression, loneliness, animal sacrifice.

Who knew they sounded so good together?

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