After eight albums, countless side projects and EPs, and the release of the much-loved 69 Love Songs in 1999, a listener may wonder if The Magnetic Fields have anything left to say. Good news! They do. With their new release, Realism, the Fields draw influence from their early catalogue, while still maintaining the lyrical wit and soul crushing despair that makes the band so much fun to listen to.
Front-man Stephin Merritt calls Realism the counter-point to 2008’s Distortion. Instead of loud guitars, echoing vocals and fuzzy atmosphere, Realism uses traditional, acoustic instruments. That doesn’t mean the record isn’t ambitious in its composition—the band plays harpsichords, accordions, and a variety of bells that seem to have fallen out of favor in the last hundred years of contemporary music. Even Daniel Handler, better known as children’s author Lemony Snicket makes an appearance playing accordion. Go figure!
Merritt has makes a point to juxtapose dark, nihilistic lyrics, over perky melodies and bubbly backgrounds. Take for example “Seduced and Abandoned”—as Merritt croons over an infant abandoned to die, the music trots at a slow waltz led by a merry harpsichord. Not many songs about infanticide manage to sound this amusing.
Sometimes the Merritt’s snooty intellectualism can veer close to pretension. “The Dada Polka” alludes to the post-WWI art movement of Dadaism, a movement that asserts everything is meaningless and life is a pointless, torturous exercise in futility. One might argue Merritt is writing toward a very specific audience, another may counter Merritt is a gigantic prick. I’d wager it’s somewhere in the middle.
The Magnetic Fields have always had a scholarly air, but that hardly means they’re not fun. “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” starts off as a song about the holiday season—halfway through, it turns into a bar chantey sung in German. This is weird music aimed at weird people. I expect teenagers with thick-rimmed glasses and copy-editors who listen to NPR to wholeheartedly enjoy Realism. If you give it a chance, I bet you will too.
Key Tracks: “Seduced and Abandoned”, “The Dada Polka”, “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree”
WPGU Music Staff Rating: W-P-G-½
W = Poor
W-P = OK
W-P-G = Good
W-P-G-U = Great!