Distortion is being marketed as a jarring departure from the clean, Tin Pan Alley sound associated with impresario Stephin Merritt. And it's true that the production here is dirtier. But the Magnetic Fields have played with this pop-confection-heard-through-a-wind-tunnel formula before, as a cursory listen to 1991's Distant Plastic Trees confirms. Even if this isn't wildly new territory, Distortion contains the same effortless range of songwriting styles and charmingly misanthropic lyrics for which the Fields are beloved.
Standout tracks are "Zombie Boy," with Merritt singing his devotion to an undead lover over a creepy toy piano that recalls John Carpenter's Halloween score; "Drive On, Driver," a dream-pop-meets-country-and-Western ballad that finds singer Shirley Simms' flat voice twinged with a drawl; and "The Nun's Litany," a girl-group diatribe in which a bored nun dreams, "I'd like to be a playboy's bunny / I'd do whatever they asked me to."
What the murky production and thudding bass do lend to the record is a cohesion to Merritt's eclectic genre pieces, so that the codeine-Christmas sleigh bells of "Mr. Mistletoe," the snappy strut of "Too Drunk to Dream" and the elegiac vocals and thundering machinery of "Old Fools" all work together in a way the variety on 69 Love Songs didn't.
It may take you a few listens to grow to love Distortion as much as your other Magnetic Fields albums, but once you do, you'll have it on repeat until the next album. Let's hope we don't have to wait four years this time.