Loud and Proud
The Magnetic Fields Throw the Year's First Curve Ball

There’s nothing I like better than a good curve ball.

Some people like knowing what they’re going to get when they buy a CD (or download an album, as the case may be). I’m not one of those people. I love to be surprised. It’s like with movies or TV shows – there’s nothing worse than sitting there watching, knowing exactly what’s coming. Predictability is the leading cause of death among promising works of art.

As someone who hears a lot of music, most of it depressingly similar, I can tell you that when artists veer off their well-worn paths, it’s kind of thrilling. There’s something to be said for consistency, but if an artist puts out 15 very good albums, one after another, and they’re all basically the same, I find I have nothing to say about any of them after the third. However, if a songwriter takes risks, and drives his train right off a cliff just to see if the wreckage is interesting, I’m there. I’m fascinated.

All this is a way of leading up to the point: Stephin Merritt has just delivered the first great curve ball of 2008. It’s the eighth album by his main band, the Magnetic Fields, and it’s called Distortion – an apt title, if a bit on the nose.

If you know the Magnetic Fields, you likely associate them with a bygone era of pop songwriting. Merritt, the band’s mastermind and sole true member, learned from the best – his songs are usually reminiscent of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and the like. Many of his tunes sound lifted from some lost classic stage musical, especially the ones that dot his masterpiece, the three-CD 69 Love Songs. Merritt is among the cleverest lyricists currently working as well, and his turns of phrase are often funny and sad at the same time.

So what to make of Distortion? Well, let’s start by describing it. On the one hand, it’s a typical Magnetic Fields album – the songs are slight yet memorable, the lyrics are witty and wonderful, and the jaunty melodies are sung by a rotating cast of characters, including Merritt himself, with his striking baritone. But there’s one major difference: every inch of this album is covered in sheets of noise. From loud guitars to squalling feedback to electronic frippery, the record is practically drowning in abrasive sounds.

My first impression still stands – this is like My Bloody Valentine doing the Magnetic Fields. The more I listen, the more Jesus and Mary Chain I hear, too. But Distortion represents a huge stylistic shakeup for the ordinarily sedate Merritt. This is not a raw, garage-rock album, like some have suggested. The production was clearly labor-intensive – a lot of work went into making Distortion sound like this, and it’s obviously exactly what Merritt intended.

But does it work? After a few listens, yeah, I think it does. The secret, of course, is that Merritt didn’t sacrifice his melodic songcraft for the sake of the sound. The songs on Distortion could sit on any other Magnetic Fields album, given a thorough scrubbing and sanding. But the production gives them an extra edge, and makes it much harder to dismiss them as 13 more too-clever pop gems from a guy known for them. On first listen, fans of Merritt and his work will probably be repelled by the sea of noise, and if they make it to a second and third, they’ll learn to hear the tunes beneath the feedback. But trust me, by the fifth listen, the noise becomes an indispensable element.

What of the songs themselves? Distortion opens with a semi-surf-rock instrumental called “Three-Way,” its jaunty melody punctuated by shouts of the title phrase, but it’s with the second track, “California Girls,” that things get rolling. A tale of disgust, envy and revenge, “California Girls” works out some anger issues towards the impossibly beautiful denizens of the left coast, girls who “breathe coke and have affairs.” “Eating non-food keeps them mean,” Shirley Simms sings under a roiling sea of guitars, and in the final verse, she takes her vengeance:

“I have planned my grand attacks
I will stand behind their backs
With my brand-new battle ax
And they will taste my wrath
They will hear me say as the pavement whirls
I hate California girls…”

It’s kind of awesome. The first half stumbles a bit with a series of slow numbers – although there’s nothing wrong with “Old Fools,” “Xavier Says” and “Mr. Mistletoe,” they probably shouldn’t have been sequenced back to back. But with “Drive On Driver,” the album takes flight. It’s a sweet little number about the moment when one realizes one’s been stood up, and Simms sings it beautifully.

I’m very fond of “Too Drunk to Dream,” which begins with a chant: “Sober, life is a prison. Shitfaced, it is a blessing. Sober, nobody wants you. Shitfaced, they’re all undressing…” The song itself is, naturally, about getting too inebriated to think about your lost love, and Merritt really nails the bridge section: “So why do I get plastered, and why am I so lonely? It’s you, you heartless bastard, you’re my one and only…”

But I think I am fondest of “The Nun’s Litany,” a sprightly, filthy song about the things a nun wishes she could do with her life. The list: Playboy bunny, topless waitress, artist’s model, cobra dancer, brothel worker, dominatrix, porno starlet and tattooed lady. The lyrics are a riot, and Simms again delivers a perfect vocal. This song more than any other benefits from the sticky grime Merritt has covered it with, the lovely melody battling it out with the noise like the main character’s sweeter and seedier natures. My favorite bit is when she muses about becoming a porno star, and then quickly adds, “For that I’ll wait ‘til Mama’s dead.”

You may expect this surly little record to end with a burst of guitar fury, but you’d be wrong. “Courtesans” is the prettiest song on the album, sung from the point of view of someone wishing they could flit from one guy to another, instead of “taking love very hard.” It’s sad and funny and desperate and everything that makes a good Magnetic Fields song, and it ends this strange and wonderful little album on a graceful note.

Merritt has certainly taken a risk with this album, and chances are a good chunk of his fanbase will be put off by the gritty surface. But stick with it, dig deeper, and you’ll find a pop album worthy of anything Merritt has done. Distortion is the year’s first pleasant surprise, and may be the year’s first great album. At the very least, we’re off to a promising start.

* * * * *

Longtime readers of this column will know how much I love the work of Douglas Adams.

If all you know of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the recent movie with Mos Def and Sam Rockwell, you need to read the books. So much of the success of these stories, despite their origins as radio plays, lies in the complexity and wit of Adams’ language. Who else would describe a hovering spacecraft as hanging in the air “in much the way that bricks don’t?”

I’d long known of Adams’ association with Doctor Who, but it wasn’t until I started delving into the old series that I found out the shape of that association. Adams wrote only three stories for the series, two of which were completed. And only one of those bears his name – The Pirate Planet, which I reviewed as part of the Key to Time saga. The Pirate Planet is a splendid idea for a story, massacred by a cheap and ill-conceived production and one incredibly bad acting performance. Adams deserved better.

The next year, Adams took over as script editor on the series, under producer Graham Williams, and the show immediately took on a lighter tone. It’s been years since I’ve seen stories like The Creature from the Pit and The Horns of Nimon, but I remember a few things about them – they were funny, and Tom Baker’s Doctor was even funnier. Season 17 was the height of Baker’s improvisational antics, and it’s not an unfair assessment to say Doctor Who transformed into The Tom Baker Show, for better or worse, under Adams and Wiliams.

Adams wrote two scripts for Season 17: the ill-fated Shada, never completed because of a workers’ strike; and the undisputed highlight of the era, City of Death.

You may be confused to note that City of Death’s script is credited to David Agnew. This is a pseudonym for Adams and Williams, and it’s fairly common knowledge that Williams’ contributions to the final draft amounted to leaving well enough alone for a weekend while Adams hammered the thing out. The finished product, directed beautifully by Michael Hayes, is the closest I’ve seen anyone come to capturing the essence of Douglas Adams on screen.

For one thing, as you might expect, it’s screamingly funny. Tom Baker’s on his game from moment one here, and the script simply crackles. The story is a fairly complex one: Scaroth, the last of an alien race called the Jaggaroth, was caught in an explosion during the early days of Earth’s history, and found himself splintered and scattered throughout time. He decides to use his different identities, sprinkled through human history, in a grand plan to bring himself backwards in time and stop the explosion that fractured him and killed his race.

How does he do this? Well, for one thing, as captain of a guard during Renaissance times, he gets Leonardo Da Vinci to paint a dozen different copies of the Mona Lisa, then hides them for a future self, Count Scarlioni, to find and sell, in order to fund a time machine. (With me so far?) The Doctor and Romana stumble onto this plot, and attempt to thwart it in three different time periods.

Sounds deadly dull, right? Not to worry. City of Death has two things going for it right off the bat. One is the location filming – the story largely takes place in Paris, and the production team makes sure you know it, with lots of sumptuous shots of the Doctor and Romana traipsing through the Parisian streets. Whatever else it may be, City of Death looks beautiful.

The other thing, of course, is Adams’ dialogue. The whole thing is stuffed with one-liners and quips, clever turns of phrase that are pure Adams. Tom Baker shines with this material, especially in a scene early in the second episode in the Count’s drawing room. “What a wonderful butler! He’s so violent!” “You’re a beautiful woman, probably.” Seriously, the whole thing is great, and it culminates in this terrific exchange between the Count and the Countess, regarding the Doctor:

Countess: “I don’t think he’s as stupid as he seems.”
Count: “My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems.”

As great as Baker and Lalla Ward are in this story, though, the secret weapon of City of Death is Duggan, played by Tom Chadbon. A stereotypical shoot-first, hard-nosed detective, Duggan is a terrific foil for the Doctor, knocking people out at the most inopportune times and completely failing to understand what’s going on. (One of my favorite parts of the story comes near the end, when the Doctor, Romana and Duggan have traveled back to the dawn of history to stop Scaroth from lifting off in his alien craft. While the two Time Lords discuss their plan, Duggan, obviously six pages behind them, points in astonishment and says, “That’s a spaceship!” It’s perfectly delivered.) While the whole story is great, Duggan just lights up the screen whenever he’s around.

One more Douglas Adams special? Okay, how about this exchange between Duggan and Romana:

Duggan: “You know what I don’t understand?”
Romana: “I expect so.”

So we have a well-plotted story, some splendid acting, a nearly bulletproof script bursting with wit, a couple of very cheesy effects and masks, and on top of all that, a cameo in episode four by John Cleese. Asking for more than that from 1970s Doctor Who seems churlish. This is absolutely one of the best stories in the show’s history, and I’d bet that even if you’ve never seen the series, you’ll like this. If I had to pick just two stories to represent Tom Baker’s mammoth seven-year run, it would be this and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Sadly, it’s all downhill from here, from what I understand.

Next week, we get into the John Nathan-Turner era of the show. Nathan-Turner had the longest and most maligned tenure of any producer in Doctor Who history, and from what I’ve seen so far, that reputation is mostly deserved. So next week, The Leisure Hive, and the dawn of a brave new world.

See you in line Tuesday morning.