The Magnetic Fields - Realism

by Rich Morris Rating:9 Release Date:2010-01-25

Stephin Merritt, the pint-sized genius who fronts the Magnetic Fields, loves a concept album. 1999's 69 Love Songs was a three volume opus of - yes - 69 love songs, in a bewildering array of styles and genres (and most of them are totally brilliant; if you haven't heard it, get it now). 2004's i consisted exclusively of first-person songs beginning with the titular letter, and now comes Realism, a companion to 2008's delightful Distortion. That collection was largely made up of glossy, stylized 60s pop tunes swathed in reverb, and with the amps turned up to 11; Realism is Merritt's folk record, and is almost entirely acoustic, utilizing accordions, banjos, cellos and assorted other media (but almost no percussion) to realise his charmingly twisted minor masterpieces.

With typical self-deprecation, Merritt has said that he was originally planning to call the records 'False' and 'True', but he couldn't work out which title corresponded to which album. Both feature Merritt's particular brand of sparkling, sarcastic wit and concise, finely crafted melodies, but Realism is obsessed with the gaps between fantasy and reality where Distortion revelled in daydreams - notably on the brilliant 'California Girls' (high-school revenge fantasy) and 'The Nun's Litany' (sexual fantasy of, er, a nun). Not that Realism feels any more authentic or heartfelt than Distortion - Merritt continues to trade in ironic character pieces more than searching self-examination. The two records complement each other perfectly and, most importantly, the songs on Realism are as good as any Merritt has written (well, almost - could he ever write a better song than 'Papa Was a Rodeo' or 'Fear of Trains'?).

Proceedings open with 'You Must Be Out of Your Mind', which sees Merritt deliver a series of viciously funny put-downs in the course of rejecting an ex-boyfriend: 'I want you crawling back to me/Down on your knees yeah/Like an appendectomy/Sans anaesthesia'; or, almost as delicious, 'You can't go round just saying stuff/Because it's pretty/And I no longer drink enough/To think you're witty.' He coldly shoots down his erstwhile lover's dreams of reunion ('You think you can simply press rewind?/You must be out of your mind, son'), countering deluded fantasies with harsh truths. Caustic yet moving, it's an instant Merritt classic.

Other tracks similarly attack the head and heart in a kind of musical pincer movement. 'I Don't Know What to Say' has Merritt crooning gorgeously over shimmeringly beautiful guitars and cellos. Duet 'Walk a Lonely Road' starts almost identically to 'Xavier Says' from Distortion, but the interplay between his world-weary croak and Shirley Simm's angelic voice (used sparingly but brilliantly on the album) makes it an altogether different and more magical experience. 'Seduced and Abandoned' sees Merritt adopting the persona of a bride jilted at the altar, her dreams snatched away, with typically pitch-black humour ('Abandoned to die/I did nothing but cry/In my one-ply negligee'), over a rather mannered but charming banjo and sitar background. 'Better Things' again plays with ideas of reality and fantasy - 'I have heard the singing of real birds/Not those absurd birds that simply everybody's heard/ Real birds' - and is simply magnificent.

A Magnetic Fields record wouldn't be a Magnetic Fields without a few novelty pastiches, and on Realism they're an absolute riot. 'The Dolls' Tea Party', with it's childlike, music-box style instrumentation, is at first grating, but the viciously sarcastic skewering of pretentious, fashion-obsessed nancy boys ('We're all in our glittering best/And there will be a test on who's best and worst-dressed') is hilarious. 'We're Having a Hootenanny' ('A rootin' tootin' Hootenanny') is the folkiest, and most ersatz, track on the album and is terrifically entertaining. 'The Dada Polka' ('It's as fun as it sounds') is the only song to use an electric instrument - a subtle guitar part - and features three spine-tingling moments where the music stops and all we hear is eight beats of an eerie, echoing hum, which we then realise underpins the entire song. How they achieved that sound is beyond me (and I've listened to it about 50 times), but it turns an enjoyable track into something hypnotic, astonishing.

The greatest thing about Realism is the way it perfectly marries concept with content. It's a complete, fully-realised record, packed with ideas - Merritt constantly forcing the listener to consider what is real and what is not, in music and in the way we see the world -and it's all the better when listened to alongside its sister album, Distortion. Finally, and crucially, it contains 13 brilliant songs - none, incidentally, more than 3 ½ minutes long - which rank among the finest and funniest that Merritt, surely one of the world's great songwriters, has ever produced.

Pete Sykes

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