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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The 1990s were busy years for the indie rock group the Magnetic Fields.

Led by a quirky singer-songwriter, Stephin Merritt, the group released six albums and that included an ambitious three-CD set of 69 so-called love songs.

So far in this decade, The Magnetic Fields have put out only two albums. One came out in 2004. And our critic, Robert Christgau, thinks the second, released today, was well worth the wait.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: One reason people love Stephin Merritt is that he's neat. He prefers shapely tunes to messy emotions, which he keeps at an ironic distance while writing in the first person. And though we call the Magnetic Fields a rock band because what else can we call them, the ukulele he likes to wield isn't exactly built for rocking out. So what will his adoring fans think when they put on the band's new album, "Distortion," and hear this?

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTGAU: Merritt wanted to finish this album quickly, with the same instrumentation on every song. And he also wanted a contrast with 2004's "I", which he describes as self-consciously soft-rock. So he turned to one of his favorite rock albums, the Jesus and Mary Chain's 1985 feedback classic, "Psychocandy."

I'm sure he's telling the truth about this — he had to try hard to get feedback out of cello and piano. The new album is loud, fast, fuzzy. But there are some differences from "Psychocandy," which sounds like this.

(Soundbite of song "The Hardest Walk")

Mr. JIM REID (Vocalist, The Jesus and Mary Chain): (Singing) I cannot deceive, but I find it hard to speak. The hardest walk you could ever take is the walk you take from a to b to c.

CHRISTGAU: That's the Jesus and Mary Chain, talking about walking from A to B to C, their true formulas, which is why Merritt loves them. Now, compare this, from "Distortion."

(Soundbite of song "California Girls")

Mr. STEPHIN MERRITT (Vocalist, The Magnetic Fields): (Singing) They ain't broke so they put on airs. The faux folks sans derrieres. They breathe coke and have affairs with each passing rock star. They come on like squares then get off like squirrels. I hate California girls.

CHRISTGAU: They come on like squares then get off like squirrels. I hate California girls. A very Merritt-like turn of phrase. Followed by John Woo's guitar rising distinctly from the murk. This is far from neat. But it has a lot more definition and wit than "Psychocandy." And though what I'm about the play is one of Stephen Merritt's livelier turns on "Distortion," the lyric would stand out even if it was more muted.

(Soundbite of song "Too Drunk To Dream")

Mr. MERRITT: (Singing) I got to get too drunk to dream because I only dream of you. I got to get too fried to cry or I'll be crying all night long. I got to get too high to sigh. Oh, my God, where did I go wrong? So why do I get blasted, and why am I so lonely? It's you, you heartless (unintelligible). You're my one and only.

CHRISTGAU: In 1999, Magnetic Fields arrayed 69 songs about love over three CDs, a once-in-a-lifetime opus Stephin Merritt will never match. But to me, this new album he's tossed off has a consistency and weight that's more impressive than any of the other numerous products of his fecundity and facility. It does rock out and its momentum counterbalances Merritt's typically dour mood. Summing up is a duet called "Please Stop Dancing" that has it both ways.

(Soundbite of song "Please Stop Dancing")

Mr. MERRITT: (Singing) Please stop dancing in my soul…

SIEGEL: Robert Christgau is a contributing editor with Rolling Stone magazine. He reviewed the new album from the Magnetic Fields called "Distortion."

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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