What's 69 Love Songs Got To Do With It?,
This review is from: Distortion (Audio CD)
I apologize for the pun, but it has to be said that if 69 Love Songs proved anything, apart from Stephin Merritt being a prolific and witty song-writer, its that genre doesn't mean much to TMF: at the heart of whatever premise of style that's been chosen to dress up the music in is a knack for writing entertaining, occasionally sublime pop songs. To judge Distortion against the behemoth that was 69 Love Songs is a bit unfair because they're not quite the same thing: Distortion is a regular 45 minute long-player, the kind most bands release during their careers, whereas 69 Love Songs is a three hour artistic statement; a tour-de-force of songwriting that, lucky for us, 'hit' far more often than it missed.
The 'pared down' aesthetic extends beyond reduced running time: all of the songs are based on a simple electric guitar, bass, drums and piano format, with the occasional organ, played at feedback inducing volume; all the songs are sung alternately by Merritt and co-vocalist Shirley Simms, with the exception of mass 'shout-a-long' 'Three-way', and 'Please Stop Dancing'; and there isn't a synthesizer in sight (the biggest shock of them all if you ask me)!
As themes go, 'Distortion' is a suitably open-ended one that doesn't intrude on songwriting subject matter, doing away with the awkward constraints of their previous album 'I' whilst providing a unifiying aesthetic for Merritt's songs of millionaires, zombies, starlets and drunkards.
Most, if not all of the songs are excellent, but don't be surprised if you find the yourself singing the up-tempo 'California Girls', 'Drive On, Driver' and 'The Nun's Litany', all sung by Simms, whilst driving to work, doing the washing up, or whatever at the expense of the others. The tunes sung by Merritt tend to be of a more deflated, if not morose vein, suiting his deep, lugubrious voice as he sighs to 'Mr.Mistletoe', 'wither and die / you useless weed / for no-one have I'. But if there is one thing TMF do well, its hurt and lovelorn, and there is plenty of that on the album.
I won't go as far as to say that this is the best thing TMF have ever done: it probably won't shock too many die-hard fans, and will win some new ones hopefully. You certainly can't accuse the Fields of being inaccesible. The disappointing moments are those when Merritt chooses to fall back on simplistic repetition ('Please Stop Dancing') or hummable but uninspired melodies ('Till the Bitter End'), both of which smack of 'auto-pilot'. As for the generous helping of feedback that comes with the songs, well, I like it. Far from obscuring the lyrics, I think its always kept at a respectful level in the mix and rarely intrudes on the listening experience - except for one instance when it actually enhances it on the delicate 'Courtesans', a hazy pillow of sound which I sink into each time I listen to it. The couplet, 'if no-one loves them when they're old / they'll sit and count their chains of gold' kills me every time. I hold it as one of Merritt's greatest songs to date.