Being the pop purist he most definitely is, Stephin Merritt often leaves little to be said about his songs. Each one is almost exactly three minutes long, and any would sound equally comfortable on an oldies station or an indie-rock record. He’s an undisputed master of the form, and practically has been since the beginning of his career, leaving critics more time to, say, pick apart the “concept” of each of his albums, or speculate about whether or not the dude’s a racist (let’s assume, for the time being, that a guy who apes girl-group stuff so hard is not). The “concept album” tag is especially problematic: it’s a weighty term, one that, historically at least, seems better suited to big, grand rock records and less to plaintive collections of pop songs. True, 69 Love Songs is a set of 69 songs about love, and every song title on i starts with an “I.” But neither record, despite its “concept,” sounds the least bit cohesive. Each album’s common thread is more like a loose theme, a set of parameters for Merritt to write within, suggesting that without arbitrary rules he’d explode with too many perfect songs at once.
Distortion’s theme functions the same way: yes, there’s lots of it; no, the songs don’t really tie together any other way. And, in fact, the distortion itself is mostly overshadowed by cheap reverb, giving everything a soupy haze that almost resembles the lo-fi sound of older Magnetic Fields records like The Wayward Bus and parts of Holiday. In many ways, it’s as far from it as they could get — the prior album having established not just the letter rule but also a strict “NO SYNTHS” policy, which resulted in lots of clean, staccato “plinks.” The synths are back in full swing here, and they’re as warmly distorted as everything else. But, as always, the vague theme is just a vehicle for Merritt’s songs, the best here being ‘California Girls’ (not a Beach Boys cover, but not without its Brian Wilson moments) and a melancholy duet called ‘Please Stop Dancing.’ In the end, the most obvious distortion is the title itself.