For the feature of today's entry, I am going to review the new Magnetic Fields album, Realism. I hope I never gave the impression that this blog was going to be consistent in its theme. I know you don't really come here for music reviews even so, but, since it's my blog, I can do what I want.
The album, overall, is...short! 33.3 minutes. There are 13 tracks, but most are under three minutes in length. To be fair, this is about par for the course: Charm of the Highway Strip is only 33.2 minutes, and Holiday is only 36.3. Still, I always get excited about a new Stephin Merritt album, and the fact that the album is only the length of an episode of The Simpsons (counting commercials) is a little bit of a let-down. But, if this is what it takes to get the music to me, I can take it.
Enough bitching, let's talk about the music. So, I admit that I am pretty much undispleasable when it comes to Stephin Merritt. Even in his strangest, most strident, Experimental-Music-Love kind of moods, I like to think that I get what he's doing. When I'm by myself, I never skip a song on 69 Love Songs. I even like his theatrical side projects--in fact, some tracks from Orphan of Zhao can literally make me cry. Having said all that, let me say this: Realism is fantastic, and I think even a less indiscriminate fangirl than I would agree. The songs return to some of the classic sound and feel that have been largely missing on the last couple of Magnetic Fields albums.
The album is, like all of them, a concept album. Merritt's stated concept for this album is 70's orchestral and/or psychedelic folk. It is also intended as a sister record to 2008's Distortion. Where Distortion was supposed to be a loud record, Realism is meant to be a quiet record (although in fact it is a good deal more layered and catchy than the 2004 offering, i). Where Distortion's cover art featured a universal-symbol-style silhouette of a male on a jarring hot pink background, Realism shows a skirted figure on recycled brown paper. But Stephin Merritt is a tricky fellow, and there are many clues that we should not take "realism" at face value. The CD booklet is actually white gloss paper printed with an image of crinkled brown stock. We ask ourselves, how is a bathroom-symbol of a woman any less distorted than one of a man? Is music that is distorted in its production really more unreal than a digital reproduction of "acoustic" music? Conundra abound! The album is also presented, according to Merritt, in a "variety show" format, I suppose meaning that, although it's a concept album, we should not expect a consistent tone across the songs. As on 69 Love Songs, the variety of different sounds and feelings keeps the album from fading into the background, so that each individual track has a little punch of its own.
The individual songs are, to my ear, a mix of old and new sounds. Some tunes hearken back to early Magnetic Fields albums, some sound a bit like 69 Love Songs, and some actually sound more like recent side projects than anything Merritt has done with the band. The instrumentation is indeed on the acoustic side, but it is put together with that knack of Merritt's that makes it sound unlike anything else. Or maybe it's just the assortment: sitar, ukulele, harp, flugelhorn, autoharp, flute, leaves (yes leaves), something that sounds like a hammer dulcimer, and I don't know what else. If there is a musical element that is especially folky on this album, I'd say it's the extensive use of vocal harmony and unison singing. This has cropped up here and there in the past, but here it's used on several tracks and sounds more like two or three people singing together than like a lead with backup vocals. The subject matter of the songs is nothing new, nor are they more (or less) autobiographical than previous efforts. As usual, some of them are heartwrenching, others are silly, and all are at least a little bit sardonic.
As with the past two albums, the quality of the songwriting has been criticized for not being up to the standard of 69 Love Songs. I always find this surprising, since the quality on that album is actually quite uneven. I think that in any assortment of 69 songs by Stephin Merritt, there will be a few standouts and a few duds. 69 Love Songs does contain some of the very best love songs ever written, but so do other albums. On recent albums, "Too Drunk to Dream", "I Don't Believe You", "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend", "I'll Dream Alone" and "Drive On Driver" are all among Merritt's best tunes. Realism also has its share of great tracks. The opening track, "You Must be Out of Your Mind", is a perfect embodiment of the Magnetic Fields' style, with rollicking, multi-layered instrumentation, sadistically witty yet oddly heartfelt lyrics, and a hauntingly melodic chorus. Another high point is the fourth track, "I Don't Know What to Say," which, with it's sitar, autoharp, and mallet percussion, sounds like nothing so much as a tribute to '70s crooner Donovan. "Always Already Gone" is another fine track; Shirley Simms' ethereal, deadpan vocals bring Merritt's signature sense of detachment to the sad lyrics and gentle melody. "Better Things" is a cryptic track, which Merritt called in concert a "sarcastic paen to sincerity". I find it oddly captivating. And the closing track, "From a Sinking Boat" is an atmospheric and genuinely sad tune that would have fit well on Merritt's brilliant tribute to Lemony Snickett, the Gothic Archies' Tragic Treasury.
There are a few duds on this album: "Interlude", "The Dolls' Tea Party", "Everything is One Big Christmas Tree", and especially "Painted Flower" are pointlessly twee, verging on irritating. And yet, I still catch myself singing along with them. These tunes lean more in the direction of Merritt's work for the stage, especially considering the extensive use of the toy piano in the instrumentation. A young Angela Lansbury could have sung these songs without batting an eye.
The rest of the tracks fall in the middle. They are catchy enough, but seem light and hastily made. In this category, I'd place "We Are Having a Hootenanny", "Walk a Lonely Road", "Seduced and Abandoned", and the climactic "Dada Polka". "Seduced" is another stagey tune, saved from total blandness by Merritt's always enjoyable take on baroque instrumentation. "Hootenanny" and "Dada Polka" are both tributes to late-60's psychedelic-surf flicks, with manic beats and cultishly inviting lyrics. "Walk A Lonely Road" is a rather uninteresting story about a little boy vampire who meets a little girl vampire, and again, the male/female duet feels like something from the stage...sort of a Gothic version of "Islands in the Stream".
So, is it a perfect album? No, not by a long shot. It's not revolutionary territory for the Magnetic Fields, but it does take them in some new directions while assuring us that they still know how to do what they do best. To me, it feels like Merritt is in the middle of an experimental stage: moving away from the band's classic sound, but not yet quite sure what the sound of the new period will be.