Album Reviews

The Magnetic Fields – Realism

(Nonesuch) UK release date: 25 January 2010

The Magnetic Fields’ head honcho Stephin Merritt has always been a prolific songwriter. His muse seems restless and uncontainable; writing songs appears as natural as breathing for him. From the magnum opus of 69 Love Songs, via is work in The Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths and The Gothic Archies,�Merritt has continually produced material of the highest quality.

Realism follows on the heals of 2008’s Distortion. As the names implies, that last album was a full throttle, noise riddled aural assault, an homage to Psychocandy era The Jesus And Mary Chain. �Merritt pushed the faders and the effects up way past 11, wrapping the songs in a blanket of white noise, coating his pretty pop confection in tarnished reverb. It wasn’t for everyone.

Realism is his conscious, folky retort to Distortion’s blistered speaker excess. The records were conceived as a pair, companion pieces, sharing artwork and Merritt’s arch wit and elan. And Realism is no limp watercolour acoustic guitar record. The rules that governed the recording sessions where simple; nothing that need to be plugged in was allowed. Merritt’s leftfield take on the folk palette, with a blend of banjos, strings, accordions and tubas, places this collection closer to the chamber pop he created on 69 Love Songs than something conjured up by the likes of Kate Rusby or Rachel Unthank.

The vocals are split between Merritt’s sated croon, Claudia Gonson’s airy pronunciation and Shirley Simms’ majestic harmonies. Dividing up the lead voices is a masterstroke; each voice adds a different shade, a refracted slant on the enchanted material. The songs sparkle under the differing lights shone on them by the contrasting styles.

Merritt’s ability to place himself in the shoes of others has always been one of his major strengths as a songwriter. Harnessing his imagination and producing songs on a wide range of subjects marks him out as a rare beast in these self-obsessed times. His talent for bathing his songs in wonderful arrangements and limpet-like melodies seals his genius status. Only Swedish virtuoso Jens Lekman and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists come close to matching his strike rate for literary arc pop gold.

Thus, Seduced And Abandoned pitches a sublime melody against a backdrop of tubas and a pithy lovelorn lyric about a jilted pregnant bride-to-be. The sonorous, dolorous cellos on Painted Flower adds a lovely melancholy undertow to Simms’ shimmering vocal. The intertwined vocals on From A Sinking Boat blend seamlessly with the mesh of guitars and strings, and could be a long lost acoustic demo from late period Pulp. The Dolls’ Tea Party toy piano refrain and bouncing brass is the sound of a Glee Club meeting scored by sometime labelmates The Divine Comedy.

Merritt’s love of the three minute song and his wry turn of phrase should be prescribed to anyone still agnostic about pop. Realism showcases how effective it can be when it is allied to a dry sense of humour, a flair for melody and an ability to engage with more than a narcissistic world view.

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The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt: “It’s relatively transparent. My mother can listen to it without reaching for her earplugs” – Interview