It’s a term bandied about the rock world as loosely as ‘Pete’s 100 per cent clean and he’ll definitely be there’, but what truly constitutes a ‘musical genius’? Consistently peerless songwriting like Lennon? The ability to instantly master multiple styles and genres like Costello? A refusal to release any record that fails to expand, develop or distort the sonic advances you’ve made previously like Bowie? Or is it just having a brilliant coat and walking about like a castrated gibbon like, um, everyone else?
Stephin Merritt – mainman of New York’s premier industro chamber pop combo The Magnetic Fields – has only a moderately brilliant coat and a distinctly unsimian gait, but in all other respects he’s the photofit ‘musical genius’. Refusing to even begin recording a Magnetic Fields album unless there’s a solid concept behind it (whether it’s as simplistic as starting all the song titles with the same letter, a la ‘i’, or as complex as recording 69 different styles of love song as on their masterpiece ’69 Love Songs’), his other projects have included scoring a Chinese opera, writing a collection of darkly warped showtunes to accompany the Lemony Snicket books, electro bubblegum albums as Future Bible Heroes and gathering hosts of indie guest vocalists to record tribute albums to himself as The 6ths. Relentlessly prolific, acerbically witty and ardently inventive, Merritt’s canon is a technicolour marvel shot through with the unifying threads of impeccable tunesmithery and an adorable, dolorous baritone.
‘Distortion’, MF’s eighth album, archly twists the tale once more. Just as Glasvegas grab the scree-infested Wall Of Sound baton from The Raveonettes and race off into the Glasgow tenement estates chasing the last child support cheque, ‘Distortion’ finds Merritt (in a nod to his more noise-friendly early albums) making everything from cello to acoustic piano feed back in an attempt to out-Mary Chain the Mary Chain, swathing the entire record in a white noise shimmer and thus scooping off another slice of the zeitgeist.
If opener ‘Three-Way’ is a fuzzed-up, instrumental, kind of B-52s down a very deep well – it merely acts as a signpost to ‘Distortion’’s sonic route. The serrated zombie pop sparkle of ‘California Girls’ – a bile-filled antidote to the Beach Boys’ mawkish slab of chutzpah of the same name, sung by long-term Mate Of Merritt Shirley Simms – kicks things off in earnest with huge chiming Phil Spectoresque chords, drums like doodlebugs crashing over Westminster Abbey and seductively murderous cries of “(i)They breathe coke and they have affairs with each passing rock star… I hate California girls(i)”. And it’s this playful wit that provides the highpoints of this (pretty stupendous anyway) record: ‘Too Drunk To Dream’ is a beaten and bruised glam car crash about being so heartbroken that you need to make pillow talk with Mr Jim Beam esq., while ‘Zombie Boy’ is essentially Depeche Mode falling in love with the undead – “(i)You look pretty pure for so long in the ground/You smell like a sewer but you don’t make a sound(i)”.
It’s Merritt’s skills in weaving such hook smothered wryness between truly moving pop epics like ‘I’ll Dream Alone’ or the crushing ‘Courtesans’ – or even incorporating both into the same song, as on the crack-addictive ‘The Nun’s Litany’, in which a lady of the cloth muses “(i)I want to be a topless waitress/I want my mother to shed one tear(i)” to a beehive pop bop – that lifts him onto a higher stratosphere than anyone working in alternative pop today. You might have been able to sing the theme from (i)Blackadder II(i) along to parts of recent Fields albums but ‘Distortion’ is above cynical reproach – effortlessly modern and definitively 2008, yet flitting with the ghosts of Shields, Madder Rose (ask your 90s alt.indie expert uncle) and The Jesus And Mary Chain. One of the greatest records of 2008 casually bunged out with the post-Christmas slurry? Purest, starkest genius.