Friday, January 22, 2010

The Magnetic Fields: "Realism" (album review)

The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs is one of my favorite albums of all-time.  It is certainly high on my desert island discs list (as opposed to my dessert island discs list, which is completely different).  That's one of the reasons I always look forward to a new release from Stephin Merritt and company.  The new album, Realism, comes out on January 26th.

The concept for this one is the hoity toity world of art, and it is a stylistic 180 from the last record, 2008's feedback-drenched Distortion.  The songs are based in folk and more traditional roots music.  And you know you've got folk music when you have accordion present ("We Are Having a Hootenanny") and banjo ("Always Already Gone").

From an arrangement standpoint, Realism is a little too laid back for my liking.  With the exception of the jaunty "Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree", the banjo minstrel song "Seduced and Abandoned", and the perfect storm of "The Dada Polka", the music fails to engage the listener.  Tunes like "Painted Flower" and "Interlude" are almost completely uninteresting, making one question why they even exist.  A slightly more intricate number, "The Doll's Tea Party", comes across as a recycled idea.

Clever lyrics have always been a hallmark of The Magnetic Fields' music.  Unfortunately there are far fewer chuckle-inducing moments on Realism than one would like.  Sure, you'll get a chuckle out of "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" and the aforementioned "Always Already Gone", but rather than having several of those moments on each song, we instead have one every couple of tracks.

It pains me to say it, but the lyrics are generally not as witty as we've come to expect from Stephin Merritt, and the delightful hooks, which we even present amongst the reverb of Distortion, are simply not here with any regularity.  In the end Realism is an album that just doesn't have the legs.  As a result it comes off as rather ordinary at best.

Best tracks: "Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree", "The Dada Polka"

Track listing for Realism:
  • You Must Be Out of Your Mind
  • Interlude
  • We Are Having a Hootenanny
  • I Don't Know What To Say
  • The Doll's Tea Party
  • Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree
  • Walking a Lonely Road
  • Always Already Gone
  • Seduced and Abandoned
  • Better Things
  • Painted Flower
  • The Dada Polka
  • From a Sinking Boat
The Magnetic Fields' website
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Anonymous said...

I hate to say it, but having listened to 4 or 5 of the tracks on MySpace, I have to agree. I think 69 Love Songs is fantastic, so fantastic that I don't mind that every album since has felt like a bit of a retread. They were still certainly enjoyable with good songs and hooks. From what I've heard, though, the new one just isn't interesting musically or lyrically. Too bad, really, as I've been listening to and enjoying them for almost 20 years now.

Anonymous said...

On first listen I think it's fantastic, already I've forgotten about Distortion which is a mess.

Merritt is back, the gorgeous minor key melodic hearbreakers are all there.