The Magnetic Fields
By Skip Perry | 3 February 2010
Though it feels like only yesterday that I obsessively played and unsuccessfully proselytized for its three incredible CDs as a junior in high school, more than a decade has passed since the release of 69 Love Songs (1999). And during that time, Stephin Merritt has done his best to live the damn thing down: self-indulgent solo releases and collaborations, come and gone with little more than a whimper (the Future Bible Heroes’ Eternal Youth , two movie soundtracks, a musical theater project), were interspersed with two divisive Magnetic Fields albums that attacked established pillars of the group’s sound, eschewing synthesizers (i ) or, in the case of Distortion (2008), taking aim at any vestiges of daintiness. On the surface, Realism fits neatly into this post-69 trajectory as the third in Merritt’s so-called “no-synth trilogy”: it uses no electric instruments and no traditional percussion; it’s broadly, almost arbitrarily, designated as The Folk Album; and it keeps to a short duration (33 minutes; i and Distortion clock in at under 40).
But from the first guitar strum it’s obvious that Realism is not just another anti-69 Love Songs. Hewing neatly to a thin concept limited Merritt’s scope throughout both i and Distortion, but like 69, Realism‘s conceit is so expansive he can do pretty much whatever he wants and still remain within sincere intentions. This means synthesizing something coherent and natural from singer-songwriter tropes, from traditional European dance, psychedelic freak-folk, American primitive, and God knows what else, unconstrained by topic and ranging in tone and levity from sarcastic Christmas cheer (“Everything is One Big Christmas Tree”) to a spurned lover’s alcohol binge (“Seduced and Abandoned”), all child’s play (“The Dolls’ Tea Party”) and complete nonsense (“The Dada Polka”) in between.
On i and Distortion, it often sounded like the group was still figuring out how to fit their thematic obligations into new aural templates. This time out, production values are enjoyably high, vocal lines slathered with echo and backed by what seems like a dozen different types of stringed instruments. It’s a decidedly large record when compared against Merritt’s previous output; the instrumentation has a timbre that evokes the guitar tones of Jack Frost Bob Dylan, and there are none of those spare guy-plus-ukulele tracks that made 69 Love Songs an occasionally economical listen.
Long, slow cello lines make up for the polish lost with the removal of synthesizers; piercing staccato elements and strong guitar strums step in for the loss of percussion. The high, medium, and low tones in both the vocal and instrumental lines of “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” produce a particularly sophisticated texture to go along with the prototypical Merritt melody and lyrics. As has been the case before, the record’s female vocalists carry the most affecting songs: Shirley Simms croons sweetly over delicate accompaniments on “Interlude” and “Painted Flower” while Claudia Gonson’s homey alto meshes beautifully with the thick string arrangement of “Always Already Gone.” At times Merritt reaches even further into the past: “Walk a Lonely Road” has the rich sound, the breathy bass-baritone, and the road-related subject matter of The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994).
“We Are Having a Hootenanny Now” and “The Dolls’ Tea Party” are probably the most obvious targets for criticism, but I want to defend those songs specifically as well as the role they play on the record. “Dolls” is only the latest in a long line of tracks inspired by youth and manifested in toy instruments; the rococo 3/4 instrumentation is delicate but well-constructed, allowing the image of actual tea partiers (kids, not right-wingers) conversing in tongue-twisters like “We prattle and tattle on who’s done whom wrong” and “We’re all in our glittering best / There will be a test on who’s best and worst dressed” to earn its preciousness. And at the risk of descending into unmitigated fanboy apologia, tracks like these two are just part of the deal: Merritt’s aim can drift when he pokes and prods at the absurdities of modern life, but it’s because of that willingness to be clumsy and inelegant that his music can be so compelling.
Unfortunately, Merritt and the Magnetic Fields are captive not just to an acclaimed discography but to a larger-than-life milestone album that all but set the course of their artistic ambitions. These tracks will never replace “Sweet-Lovin’ Man” or “When My Boy Walks Down the Street” or “Queen of the Savages” or “I Think I Need a New Heart” or “The Night You Can’t Remember”—but they’re not trying to. These tracks are only pointing to such other tracks, nodding in confirmation. After a decade of contrarian, even petulant repudiations of the music that made the Magnetic Fields famous, Realism is capitulation, contrition, and celebration at once. It’s back to basics in the best way.