The Magnetic Fields attract force of crowds

by Beacon Staff • February 13, 2008

While the pains associated with heartbreak are often the subject of rock songs, they're not as often drenched with wit, irony and the stark stench of a dive bar. This is precisely the case, however, with "Too Drunk To Dream," a track from Distortion, the newest effort by Boston-based band The Magnetic Fields. "I gotta get too drunk to dream, 'cause dreaming only makes me blue / I gotta get too drunk to dream, because I only dream of you."

Stephin Merritt, the band's frontman and creative mastermind, is quoted on the band's website, houseoftomorrow.com, as saying that Distortion is the group's most commercial album in a career spanning over 17 years. With the release of Distortion, the band has kicked off a U.S. tour to promote the album, and on Feb. 14 and 15 the wry lyricists will be playing at the Somerville Theatre at 8 p.m. Depending on how you perceive Valentine's Day, this is either beautifully romantic or an excellent way to drown your heartbreak in fuzzy, electronic splendor.

Distortion, as the name implies, is a grungy, electro-shock to the system. Gone are the quirky, ukulele-infused sounds of 69 Love Songs-the band's landmark 1999 release. That album was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful worldwide, and consisted of 69 tracks on three discs. Gone, too, are the categorical motifs of i, a 2004 record in which each song title began with the letter "i."

Distortion represents the band's return to its roots: a loud, visceral display of sound that isn't weighed down by one particular concept. While the album explores themes of regret, hope and loss, there isn't a unifying narrative or an ironic lyrical twist, unlike the rest of the band's catalogue. Simply put, it is 40 minutes of Stephen Merritt doing precisely what he does best: writing rock and roll "pop" songs far too heavy for pop and far too foreign for rock and roll.

Merritt's work on the record is a steady mix of noise and harmony. It is Phil Spector on fire. It is The Beach Boys siphoned through a muffler.

And, according to The Magnetic Fields' Web site, Merritt believes

Distortion is The Magnetic Fields' most accessible album. "This is my most commercial record in a way," he said.

"Some audience members may be completely and immediately turned off but, I figure, if you find it too loud, just turn it down and it will sound quite pretty."

The band's fan base is hardly limited to North America. Their MySpace page is flooded with comments from people all around the world. Desperate fans from France and Spain implore the band to play at a venue close to home. Their shows sell out almost instantly.

"Why tease us with concert dates if all of them are sold out already?" asks one MySpace friend.

As difficult as it may be for a band to stay together for as long as The Magnetic Fields has, it is even more difficult to consistently please the devotees that have been following them for just as long. Despite the changes in sound and style, The Magnetic Fields have yet to fade with the times. On the contrary, it would appear as though the band's popularity is on the rise. These daring experiments in sound are not only welcomed by their fans, but also fully expected and endorsed. Good luck finding tickets.

The Magnetic Fields will be playing at the Somerville Theatre on Feb. 14 and 15. You can expect a loud wall of sound, sharp, witty lyrics and the dedication of a band that, with any luck, is just beginning.