It's a crime that one of the greatest Christmas songs in recent memory is being released in January. "Mr. Mistletoe," the fifth track on The Magnetic Fields' new full-length, Distortion, is mastermind Stephin Merritt's addition to the loveless-on-Yuletide canon, and it waltzes through washes of frosty fizz and curdled couplets like "Oh, Mr. Mistletoe, wither and die / you useless weed / for no one have I." As always, Merritt's scheming rhymes and Nyquil-clogged voice lend body to the froth of his high-concept pop. But eight albums in, the songwriter has cooked up a singularly arch ambition: "to sound more like The Jesus And Mary Chain than The Jesus And Mary Chain." In that task, Merritt utterly fails. But that doesn't make Distortion any less brilliant.
Merritt, as the disc's title implies, has chased the J&MC; dream by steeping everything in torrents of distortion. "Zombie Boy," the album's token new-wave song, sounds like Ultravox wrung through cheesecloth, and "Drive On, Driver" is just one of Shirley Simms' acidly sweet, static-scarred contributions. But Distortion's racket is a muted, gentle one. Feedback—and there's a ton of it—twinkles rather than stabs, and Merritt's melodies and arrangements are far more supple and pliant than anything the Reid Brothers ever produced. In fact, the album edges closer to J&MC;'s peers on Creation Records in the late '80s, bands like Felt and The Pastels, which mixed deadpan angst with immaculate mutations of classic songcraft. Of course, Merritt has always been that era's torchbearer, and that's why Distortion winds up being far less of a departure than Merritt may have intended. The songs themselves are as lush and prickly as anything Merritt's ever made—who can resist the lines "Sober, life is a prison / Shitfaced, it is a blessing"? Christmas came very early this year.