It used to be said of Stephin Merritt that he wrote song about songs, a description he took as a compliment, and statement of intent, even when it was intended pejoratively.
The story of Distortion seems to be that its production is about production. Hmmm… that may look like a good idea on paper, but how good's it going to sound to the ear? If you watch the video interview below through to around 6 minutes, you'll hear Stephin complaining that this album took longer to make, mostly in the mixing stage, than any other Magnetic Fields album. He says that after 18 months' of pain, he's happy with the results. The comparison is vainglorious, but I worked for 18 months on my book, and felt "happy" with it at the end. At the same time I knew it was misconceived.
When Distortion's sibling, Realism came out, the story was that Stephin had considered calling the pair True and False. With Distortion's production inspired by Jesus & Mary Chain and Realism's by a couple of sixties Judy Collins albums, he couldn't decide which was which. I suspect the story is False, and invented to make a point, because it's hard to imagine Stephin — even for a moment — being seduced by the idea an authentic Truth.
In fact — an expression I use without irony — Distortion seems to be daring us to say that there are proper Magnetic Fields songs inside struggling to out. Just so that it can mutter under it's breath about all being artifice.
Still, when it came to perform these songs live, there was no way to reproduce the sound of the record, and what we got were unadorned, proper versions of the songs. On the promotional circuit, Stephin was only to quick to perform The Nun's Litany in a form that does much more justice to the song.
I listened to Distortion when it came out. I listened again in July 2008 when the tour visited London. And again yesterday. I expected on each occasion to become more reconciled to it and realise how good the songs are. It remains immensely hard to love, or even care about.
I saw all three shows on consecutive nights of that London visit. This was a mistake as, by the end, I'd fallen out of love with the band. I've yet to get round to buying Realism, mainly because I wanted a vinyl copy, and it's just too expensive.
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