Album Review: The Magnetic Fields – Realism (Nonesuch, 2010)

Daniel Jane 9 February 2010

It seems virtually obligatory that every review of The Magnetic Fields (a.k.a. N.Y.-cum-L.A.-based singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt) begins by comparing his astronomically ambitious three-disc 69 Love Songs with the pithiness of its successor. However, a feat as monumental as 69 Love Songs will seldom be repeated by any musician, and unduly emphasising that album distracts us from the fact that, since then, Merritt has consistently produced lush, sophisticated pop. Realism is no exception.

Realism is a counterpart to Merritt’s previous effort, Distortion, a fuzz-soaked genuflection at the altar of The Jesus and Mary Chain. Where Distortion turned the amps up to eleven, Realism dispenses with amps altogether. Nevertheless, from the minute you hear the sumptuous strings and harpsichord of chiming opener ‘You Must Be Out Of Your Mind’, you can tell that, although the album is totally acoustic, minimalist it is not. Merritt has spun a rich, liquid tapestry of flugelhorn, strings, accordion and more.

Needless to say, the luxurious instrumentation only packs such a punch because the songs are themselves exemplars of perfect pop. Deceptively joyous ‘Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree’ combines uplifting Divine Comedy-esque melody with a German-sung chorus. ‘I Don’t Know What To Say’ could be one of the more wistful moments on the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds. Musical likenesses aside, however, Merritt liberally endows the songs with his own classic trademarks – his deadpan, urbane baritone; satirical lyrics, replete with biting put-downs; and a spirited playfulness and whimsy that will leave you with a smile on your face.

Daniel Jane