Release Date: Jan 26, 2010
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative
After a detour into the aptly named Distortion in 2008, Stephin Merritt returns to chamber pop with Realism. The twinkling arrangements sound like something out of a child’s music box, even as they mask sobering despair and twisted observations about the absurdity of it all. The delicate melodies — sung by Merritt and various innocents, including longtime collaborator Claudia Gonson — ?make all the psychic mayhem go down smoothly, barely leaving a trace of blood on the floor.
The Magnetic Fields write Eternally Great Pop Songs. Have since 1991, will, we hope, for years to come. Stephin Merritt conceives infinities of combinations of a foolhardy formula, and minor key changes to patterns of romance-filled composition enable this: a ninth album in the name of reality, truth, and all-acoustic recording. Realism stands as the flipside to 2008’s Distortion, whose electric guitars and fuzzy amplification produced a blend of honey power pop reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy.
Ever since 69 Love Songs was released, it's been no difficult task to catch Stephen Merritt overextending himself. Conceptually dense while vibrantly singular, each album since the 1999 lauded classic has carried with it its own specific semblance of quirky indulgences. Following such an ambitious project is a delicate undertaking in the first place.
The drawback to making the Album of Your Life is the problem of what to do with your life afterwards. Admittedly, it's a problem most rock and pop artists would love to face, as opposed to the more common dilemma of having made an album so catastrophic that your career options now consist of (a) appearing on a reality show where Gillian McKeith angrily protests the quality of your stools, alongside Lembit Opik, Wincey Willis and one of Goldie Lookin' Chain and (b) manning the tills at Halfords – but it's a problem nonetheless. Once you've made the album that everyone agrees captures you at the absolute zenith of your powers, once you've basked in the critical plaudits, public glory and sudden increase in the number and quality of people who want to hump you into the middle of next week, there is, as Phillip Larkin once noted of the Beatles' career trajectory, "nowhere to go but down".
The title of the Magnetic Fields’ ninth album, Realism, is, of course, a trap. As a songwriter, singer, and musician, Stephin Merritt has never pretended to deliver Truth in song. Certainly you can listen to his songs the way most people naturally listen to music: react to the sentiment of the lyrics and ‘feel’ the song, but the song is always asking you questions too.
The Magnetic Fields, who went over-the-top electric on their previous effort, Distortion, and have always liked synths, have switched gears on their ninth by incorporating only acoustic instruments into the mix. Banjo, flugelhorn, tuba, cajón, accordion and tablas all prop up Stephin Merritt's distinctive bass and dry-humoured lyrics, which, fans will be glad to know, remain in top form. [rssbreak] Opener You Must Be Out Of Your Mind, with its clever rhymes and charming melody, could've been the 70th tune on their much-loved classic 69 Love Songs, while the resigned Seduced And Abandoned, about a pregnant bride left at the altar, is lo-fi baroque at its best.
Stephin Merritt completes his “no synth” trilogy Providing the counterpart to 2008’s noise-pop experiment Distortion, The Magnetic Fields’ latest, Realism, is the band’s first attempt at folk music. Setting aside all instruments requiring an electric cord, Stephin Merritt and his bandmates trade the former album’s fixation on feedback and fuzz for a focus on crisp textures and neatly arranged acoustic instruments such as banjo, tuba, cello and accordion. Merritt, a master of melodic nuance and austere wit, favors the mixing pot explored by ’60s and ’70s British folk-revivalists, with that era’s emphasis on eclecticism and exploration informing his drift through gorgeously dainty chamber pop (“Seduced and Abandoned”), toy-piano lullabies (“The Doll’s Tea Party”) and boisterous singalongs (“We Are Having a Hootennany”).
All it takes is a few seconds into Realism’s familiar first track (the warm, wily, and weary "You Must Be out of Your Mind") to jump to the conclusion that Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt has simply run out of musical motifs with which to embed his seemingly endless supply of biting, bittersweet lyrics. Happily, that’s not the case, as the remaining 12 songs on Realism show significant musical growth for one of pop music’s greatest corner bar-, heartbreak-, and sarcasm-obsessed napkin poets. The antithesis of 2008’s noisy Distortion, Realism revels in folk music in a way that hasn’t appeared on a Magnetic Fields album since 1990’s Distant Plastic Trees.
In the 10 years since the Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt's ornate orchestrations and wry, referential lyrics have gone from indie rock anomalies to NPR staples. And while countless artists have successfully tempered the emotional gratification of "rock" with self-aware sophistication, Merritt continues to defiantly withhold the former. Merritt embraces artifice where other musicians disavow it, willfully avoiding (or outright mocking) gestures at "sincerity" and presenting his songs as stylized works of fiction.
Thank goodness for sturdy institutions. Just over 10 years after the iconic 69 Love Songs, we are blessed with another platter from the ensemble who brought you a consensus indie rock Desert Island Disc. The Stephen Merritt brand of mature indie pop has produced a series of consistently solid recordings going back almost 20 years, including 90s classics like Holiday, Get Lost, and The Charm of the Highway Strip in addition to the aforementioned three-disc magnum opus.
Hopefully the last in an increasingly sorry string of low-concept concept albums, the Magnetic Fields’s Realism is an acoustic-tinged sibling to 2007’s sludgy, mildly successful Distortion. As the cover art of the two albums show, this one appears as an inverse to its earlier counterpart, all sparse compositions and organic instruments to its predecessor’s shoegaze-inspired wall of fuzz. It would seem that such a minimal structuring idea might help alleviate the forced feeling of earlier unfortunate concept works, like the too-bulky 69 Love Songs, but somehow the songs here are equally strained, clumsily and witlessly presented and far more annoying than they have a right to be.
Consistently confirms what an unusually inventive arranger Stephin Merritt is. Andrew Mueller 2010 The Magnetic Fields’ 2008 album, Distortion, was a wilful, pugnacious hymn to its own title, revelling gleefully in its lack of resemblance to any previous Magnetic Fields album. Stephin Merritt’s characteristically crisp lyrical sketches were suddenly shrouded in squalls of Jesus & Mary Chain-ish effects, and the passing listener could have been forgiven for wondering whether he had finally abandoned the erudite indictments of Cupid that have characterised his career in favour of anguished, primal wailing.