The earliest albums released by Stephin Merritt's Magnetic Fields (in particular, 1995's Get Lost) featured burbling synth-pop in the vein of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Soft Cell, long before such new-wave influences were prevalent or trendy. Perhaps that's why Distortion, the eighth Magnetic Fields release and a fantastic return to those electro roots, feels so nostalgic. Soft-glow reverb coats the album's songs-think Phil Spector's lush Wall of Sound or the the Jesus and Mary Chain's early days—which makes them fuzzy with wistfulness and regret, like a collection of sepia-toned photos. Layers of cloudy, minor-chord keyboards drive “Xavier Says,” while “Please Stop Dancing” sounds like the Human League on a cloudy day. “Too Drunk to Dream” is a typical Merritt-esque musical-theater vamp, which begins with him monotoning, “Sober, life is a prison/Shit-faced, it is a blessing/Sober, nobody wants you/Shit-faced, they're all undressed.”
Merritt's clever gender-/genre-bending lyrics aren't quite as shtick-laden as on past releases—although the inscrutable “Three-Way” (on which the only lyrics are a cheery shout of “Three-Way!”) only needs new-wave beats and jaunty desert-gulch guitar riffs to be the catchiest thing on the album. Indeed, Distortion is by far the poppiest collection of songs Merritt has released since 69 Love Songs, partly because of the songwriting and partly because Merritt lets Shirley Simms (technically a more proficient singer) take lead vocals on more tunes. And when Merritt does sing, his droll, wizard-on-high vocals exhibit glorious world-weariness, as on the taffy-pulled “Mr. Mistletoe,” a wonderful sad-clown tale about trudging into the twilight of life.