Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review: The Magnetic Fields, Realism

 The Magnetic Fields
From the early influence of my parents’ record collection, featuring 60s folk-rock acts like Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon & Garfunkel and Dylan, to my later discovery of British folk revivalists and numerous modern folk artists, folk music has always been a musical staple of mine. Judging by The Magnetic Fields’ most recent album, Realism, it is a musical staple of frontman Stephin Merritt as well. Following the Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired Distortion, Realism trades feedback and fuzz boxes for more traditional folk orchestration, making use of instruments as varied as mandolins, dulcimers, banjos, accordions, sitars, flugelhorns and tubas. Musically, the album is full of retro charm and a survey of folk music across styles and eras, but in typical Merritt style, Realism is a concept album of sorts, thematically exploring—or perhaps skewering—the conventional view of folk’s lyrical sincerity. Generally, the album varies between soft, reflective tracks like “Walk A Lonely Road,” “Always Already Gone,” “Better Things” and “From A Sinking Boat” and kitschy ditties like “The Dolls’ Tea Party” and “Painted Flower” in the style of Vashti Bunyan, if she had been backed by music boxes. In songs like “Seduced and Abandoned” and “We Are Having a Hootenanny,” Merritt plays with more elaborate arrangements of different styles, and in the former, singing from the perspective of a pregnant woman, focuses on how different narrators might effect the honesty of the music, despite the style.

However, a few tracks stand out both lyrically and musically. The album begins by pairing the gentle, upbeat string-plucking of “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” with Merritt’s baritone singing darkly clever lyrics like “You can’t go round just saying stuff / because it’s pretty / and I no longer drink enough / to think you’re witty.” Departing from the typical poetic lyricism of folk, Merritt’s songs mix straightforward honesty (or maybe bluntness is a better word) with irony and wit, bringing new meaning to realism.

Another highlight of the album in this vein is “I Don’t Know What To Say,” a slow harp-driven number that takes familiar romantic lines in songwriting like “I want you” and casts them in a light that makes them seem a little stale and superficial: “I could say I want you / that would be a bore / maybe in a font you / haven’t seen before.” As the song fades, after exhausting the possibilities of things he could say, Merritt sings “I could try and shove you / off the nearest cliff.” Tongue-in-cheek? Hopefully. But who hasn’t been there? Merritt minces no words.

“The Dada Polka” wouldn’t have sounded out of place playing out of a transistor radio in the 60s. Full of harmonies held afloat by buoyant sitars and bright tambourines, the Magnetic Fields returns to the central theme of realism and begs the listener to “do something—anything— / do something a little out of character, it won’t kill you / do something—anything— / do something true.”

If anything toes the line between sincerity and artifice, it’s a holiday tune, and Realism even includes that on “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree.” The listener can almost see Merritt playfully rib the serious folk singer as he sings, “Stop mumbling and cheer up / put down the book, pick beer up / Why sit in your dark and lonely room? / Must your every word be sincere?” before the song devolves into a cheery German sing-a-long.

Realism is no expansive masterpiece like 69 Love Songs; filled with short, well-crafted folk-pop songs, it clocks in at just over half an hour. Though every song is not the best the Magnetic Fields have ever offered, overall, it is a charming listen. And like most of Stephin Merritt’s work, it rewards multiple listens with its thought-provoking wit and wordplay.

-- Catherine DeGennaro
Host, Hipsters Don’t Lie – Saturday 9-11am on WGTB

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