Album Review: The Magnetic Fields – Realism

by Marie Carney on January 29, 2010

From the opening notes of The Magnetic Fields’ new record Realism you feel at home.  There’s the familiar jangly acoustic instruments and Stephin Merritt’s low drone of a voice mixing with Claudia Gonson’s sweeter one.  The lyrics are clever and the longest song comes in at 3:26.  This isn’t the strange distorted Magnetic Fields of their last record; this is more like 69 Love Songs revisited, sweet and expected.  At first it feels too similar to their previous work to be anything interesting enough to keep you coming back.  I struggled with this idea, then realized that I’d been listening to the album almost constantly for a week letting the words and notes seep into every part of my mind, like subtle magic.

The Magnetic Fields, and its mastermind Stephin Merritt, are excellent at crafting short and quirky pop songs, and if you like that sort of thing, this album does not disappoint.  Through the first couple listens though, you’ll not see anything special.  It will just be nice and friendly.  Little lines will stand out, some songs will be catchier than others, but you won’t be sure if you’ll listen to it for very long.

Then it happens.  You start to notice all the charming little details in the songs.  For me the turning point was “I Don’t Know What to Say”, a slower number with Stephin Merritt’s vocals mixed low and echo-y giving it a bit of a 60’s vibe, but in a gothy way.  I liked the song but it kept annoying me that it just cuts off in the middle of the verse.  What’s up with that!?!  The song is only two minutes and thirty-three seconds!  Then the last words finally register “I could try and shove you off the nearest cliff.”  Yes!  I get it now!

Then all the other charming bits start revealing themselves.  On the silly “We Are Having a Hootenanny Now” all the lines end in over exaggerated “zzzzz’s” adding just a tiny bit more fun and silliness. “The Dada Polka” is a great 60’s style pop song except for the one electronic noise element that comes in on the chorus while the song tells you to “do something strange.”  Then there’s the caroling-esque German verse in “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” and the excessive child-ness of the toy pianos on “The Dolls’ Tea Party”.

Not to say there aren’t serious moments too.  The opening song, “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind” is charming, with seriously charming lyrics.  The album is full of lines like this song’s show piece:  “You can’t go round just saying stuff because it’s pretty, and I no longer drink enough to think you’re witty.”  It’s funny, but heartfelt and true at the same time.  There is muscial depth too.  “Seduced and Abandoned” sounds exactly like a Mozart waltz keeping the seriousness of the subject in the forefront instead of letting the song give itself over to the ridiculous, like any song with the word “negligee” in it could.

This album isn’t for everyone though.  A lot of the arrangements and instrument choices are overly sweet.  Often you feel like you are the lone ballerina sitting inside a music box spinning around, music clinking along.  For me, that is a good thing, but I can see why someone could cringe and hate it.  Also, if you like polished singing and production you aren’t getting it on the album.  Quirky is the word of the day.  Expect much silliness, lyrically and musically.

Overall, Realism proves once again that Stephin Merritt is a songwriting force to be reckoned with.  One part charm, one part wit and a whole lot of talent and attention to detail.  If you’ve drifted away from The Magnetic Fields the last few years this album is a great oppurtunity to come back.

Song to Download:  “You Must be Out of Your Mind”

Song to Skip When Shuffling:  “Interlude”

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