Album Review: The Magnetic Fields ‘Realism’

‘Realism’, due to be released tomorrow, is the tenth LP from Stephin Merritt’s The Magnetic Fields.

Previous release ‘Distortion’ was packed full of power-pop songs, complete with gleeful vocals, repeated harmonies, and brutal instrumentation that bored into your ears. It was seen as proof that The Magnetic Fields could indeed make a memorable album utilising any style of music that they wanted.

‘Realism’ will do nothing to dissuade people from this belief. Merritt has called it his “folk album”, and even considered calling ‘Realism’ and ‘Distortion’ ‘True’ and ‘False’. There can be little doubt that the two are meant as companion albums, from the similar (almost inverted) cover art, to having the same number of songs on each record.

‘Realism’ is almost the polar opposite of ‘Distortion’, featuring mostly acoustic instrumentation and lush harmonies. Indeed one of the few things they have in common is that they both feature no synths at all, completing Merritt’s promised no-synth trilogy that also encompasses previous release ‘i’. Naturally their next album is believed to be based entirely around synths.

The Dada Polka is actually the only song on this record that features electric guitar, and it stands out from the rest of the album like a sore thumb. The album in its entirety however is certainly a folk album, and a traditional folk album as well, fitting into the definition of the genre before it was stretched beyond belief by modern music.

Opening song You Must Be Out Of Your Mind is an utterly mesmerising song:

Merritt’s lyrics playfully jump from sincere and sophisticated to sarcastic and humorous, perfectly evidenced by You Must Be Out Of Your Mind: “I no longer drink enough to think you’re witty”. The same can be said for the rest of the album, with lyrics such as “Get the lowdown on our hoedown” (We Are Having a Hootenanny) and “The singing of real birds, not those absurd birds that simply everyone’s heard” (Better Things).

You never really know if he’s just having a laugh or if he’s being completely sincere, which is part of the allure of his music.

There is also something overwhelmingly childish in ‘Realism’, shown especially by We Are Having A Hootenanny, which wouldn’t sound out of place being sung by The Wiggles. Just like the respective album covers of ‘Realism’ and ‘Distortion’, the songs of this record are all about juxtapositions and differences.

But yet at the same time, there is something very familiar about ‘Realism’. This is the skill of The Magnetic Fields: they are able to experiment with new styles of music, toss away instruments and add new arrangements, without loosing the fundamental essence of their music. It is almost absurd to see a band so easily master anything that they try.

This is a record that will confirm many opinions of The Magnetic Fields, if they ever needed confirming: this really is a band that can do whatever they want. Certainly ‘Realism’ sounds a lot like the band’s older records, but it also builds significantly upon this sound so as to stand as a unique release. And it is certainly one worth exploring.

Album Rated: 7.5/10

Listen To: You Must Be Out Of Your Mind, I Don’t Know What To Say, Better Things, Walk A Lonely Road.

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