- On January 25, 2010
The Magnetic Fields continue their playful love-hate relationship with pop music with Realism, a new album full of love songs, un-love songs, plus the sort of absurd humor that the band’s always enjoyed putting across – the new title “The Dada Polka” might serve as an overall header for these types of songs. And Realism spends its time equally bouncing between songs that, if not actually sincere reports from songwriter Stephin Merritt’s own heart, could at least be applied to real-life situations and the sort of humorous and/or precious little ditties that they relish. So if he sounds genuinely tongue-tied with infatuation on the Brian Wilson-ish melody of the lovely “I Don’t Know What to Say” or if Claudia’s vocal on “Always Already Gone” reflects the weariness of a relationship that hasn’t worked for so long that she can’t remember how it went sour it’s sure that he’ll pull the focus back quickly to the dainty “The Dolls’ Tea Party” or precede it with “We Are Having A Hootenanny.” By my count, he’s reporting on love and meaning it about half the time – six cuts out of thirteen – and this is where he’s invested not just his emotion, but usually his melancholy as well. It’s a given that he’s put his gift for melody there too, and he doesn’t spare it on the remaining seven cuts, which split the time between the precious and the simply humorous, songs which oftentimes still manage to slip in something to say, as when “The Dada Polka” – surely what should be the most ridiculous song here, right? – offers this advice to listeners: “Do something / Anything / Do something out of character / It won’t kill you.” Basically, it’s the new Magnetic Fields album, full of the type of clever, well-crafted songwriting we’ve come to expect from them, but with unexpected flashes of the genuine. And like all its predecessors, this one cultivates its own sonic identity. Merritt has stuck with his “no synth” creed and instead made acoustic instruments sound like synths, but here instead of faking synth-pop as on i or dressing the band up as the Jesus & Mary Chain as on Distortion they’ve chosen to explore “folk.” It’s a dangerous concept to put across one of the most sincere forms of music in the hands of a committed ironist, but between his gift for simple melodies and his unusually sincere-sounding approach to some of these lyrics, I think he manages to nail it.