Under Review: The Magnetic Fields – Realism
I don’t like using the phrase “musical genius” for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is the mere fact that everyone refers to everyone as being one. Because of that, the title has lost the immense meaning it bore however many years ago. Still, there are a number of musicians who deserve the acclaim more than others. A definite contender would be Stephin Merritt. As the creative director and principle songwriter for The Magnetic Fields (as well as a handful of other bands), Merritt hasn’t so much redefined pop music as he has firmly established his own unique brand of it. With the albums following 1999’s masterpiece 69 Love Songs, Merritt has opted out of using synthesizers, a trait that characterized the band’s early output. Think of the move as a modern day John Lennon giving up the harmonica, only a lot grouchier. In 2008, The Magnetic Fields released Distortion, a set of incredibly strong songs howling with hiss and feedback. When these songs were presented live, though, they were stripped of their abrasive noise and given new, totally acoustic lives. That might’ve served as the inspiration for Realism, although Merritt has suggested that he had the companion albums planned out for a few years. Just as the Distortion songs sounded just as strong without their haze, the songs on Realism are impressive without having to employ any real sonic gimmickry.
As it is a companion record, Realism features a handful of songs that pair very well with specific pieces on its predecessor. Distortion had its ‘all together now’ group moment with “Please Stop Dancing,” Realism has it with opener “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind.” Distortion’s pseudo-showstopper was “I’ll Dream Alone,” Realism’s is “Seduced And Abandoned.” Distortion had “Mr. Mistletoe,” Realism has “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree.” You get the idea. Compliments aside, Realism doesn’t overly rely on Distortion’s material and, as a result, produces some of the band’s finest songs in their lengthy career. Two of those songs, “We Are Having A Hootenanny” and “The Dada Polka” (the latter being the only track to feature the electric guitar and drum kit) are unusual for Merritt’s catalogue in that they are seemingly outright happy songs. I felt like I was waiting for a song-ending kicker line like in “The One You Really Love” to come along and warp the mood, but those songs are surprisingly untainted by Merritt’s notorious malaise. Each song, playful (“The Dolls’ Tea Party”) or delicate (“Painted Flower”), embodies the Magnetic Fields’ spirit wonderfully. The Victorian-esque arrangements combine harpsichords and cellos with banjos and celestas, creating a wide-eyed and friendly atmosphere for Merritt to lay down his heart-wringing tales. The Magnetic Fields continue to do delightful things as they stand to enter third decade together.