The Magnetic Fields - Realism

An album that appears majestic enough on the surface, but is full of holes and never quite floats right.

To finish off the bands ‘no-synth’ trilogy, Stephin Merritt and his cohorts in The Magnetic Fields abandoned the ‘Psychocandy’-like discord of ‘Distortion’ for the all-acoustic, natural sound of ‘Realism’, recorded without the benefits of any electronic instruments. This shift in strategy creates a discernibly different mood and tone on this record, but also produces an uneven, inconsistent listen. For while it is nice to distinctly hear Merritt’s clever, jocular lyrics without them being bathed in distortion, the songs themselves, with the absence of any truly absorbing musical arrangements, often come across as rather insubstantial and drab. Merritt is a talented enough songwriter that you figure he could write a good song in his sleep, but on ‘Realism’ it frequently seems like he’s not really trying very hard, with the songs coming across as tired and uninspired, and the simple, silly themes continually discrediting the true ability of the artist.

There is a nursery rhyme charm to the songs that work on the album, but the songs that don’t work just end up sounding childish. ‘You Must Be Out Of Your Mind’, one of the better songs on the record, echoes the blissful folk of Joni Mitchell, just with a bitter, jagged edge to it. But with ‘Interlude’, the band displays the one step forward, two steps back predicament that plagues ‘Realism’; one where a good song is rapidly followed by a couple of cast-offs that derail any positive momentum the record has going for it. ‘We Are Having A Hootenanny’ is a bit of a lark, and is a nod to the folky inspiration of the album, but ultimately lacks any real depth to be memorable. ‘I Don’t Know What To Say’ is a strong example of the uncomplicated, simple songs that Merritt is best at, and it’s a tender, wistful track that wisely keeps from being saccharine. ‘The Dolls’ Tea Party’ is a continuation of Claudia Gonson’s acerbic attack on the ‘California Girls’ that began on Distortion, but while that song was backed with a raucous JAMC melody, ‘Tea Party’ is backed with a music-box ditty and a tuba, which while novel and inventive, proves to be merely jejune and ultimately robs the tune of any lyrical impact.

‘Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree’ is simply an awful song, no matter what time of the year it is, and that’s before the song switches to German. It’s the low point of the album (and, perhaps, Merritt’s career), and causes one to question how much he truly cares about ‘Realism’ if a song like this can make the final cut. Thankfully ‘Walk A Lonely Road’ is a lovely, plaintive song, driven by Merritt’s jaunty mandolin, but again the momentum built up by that charming song is brought to a halt by ‘Always Already Gone’ which despite having some sweet sentiments, fails due to the off key vocals and distracting arrangements. ‘Seduced And Abandoned’ finds Merritt settling into his downtrodden, hard drinking lyrical persona, and it obviously suits him as he’s made a career out of playing the disregarded wallflower. The song proves to be humorous despite the heartbreaking subject matter (like a great deal of Merritt’s masterpieces), and features what could be the best (and most shocking) last line of a song ever. You can depend on Merritt for delivering a few verses per album that cause you to laugh out loud, and that is clearly one of them. But that ultimately is what is so disappointing with ‘Realism’; that lines like these are too few and far between, and the album suffers for it.

‘Better Things’ and ‘The Dada Polka’ are both poignant and sublime, and makes one wish that more of the record would be this affecting and emotive. It just seems like more care and time was taken with the songs that truly flourish, while the other unbalanced, tenuous numbers are just sketches that never fully materialise. ‘Painted Flower’ is a perfect example of this process; for while there are gorgeous strings and stirring lyrics layered throughout the brief number, it never coalesces into anything meaningful. And when the album closes with the grand, mournful dirge of ‘From A Sinking Boat’ you wonder if the song in any way encapsulates Merritt’s feelings about ‘Realism’, an album that appears majestic enough on the surface, but is full of holes and never quite floats right.

Tags: The Magnetic Fields, Reviews, Album Reviews

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