THE MAGNETIC FIELDS
CD Review: "Realism"
Over the past 10 years, the Magnetic Fields, helmed by prolific songwriter Stephin Merritt, has released albums devoted to particular themes: the behemoth "69 Love Songs," "i" (the album's song titles all begin with the letter I) and the reverb-laden "Distortion."
The concept behind the group's latest release, "Realism," is much less obvious. Merritt's perception of musical "reality" is presented with a look backward: "Realism" feels like an old-timey folk album with its non-electric instrumentation (including piano, banjo, accordion and fluegelhorn), precise enunciation and narrative lyrics.
Merritt's retro-sounding production choices work hand-in-hand with the song's subjects: The delicate "The Dolls' Tea Party" would hardly work with a more modern arrangement, and the catchy singalong "We Are Having a Hootenanny" sounds like an intro to a hoedown. But the album's best songs transcend Merritt's retro choices. The outstanding "Seduced and Abandoned" features Merritt singing from the perspective of a pregnant, jilted bride; the mix of serious vocals and surprising situations (the image of Merritt "in my one-ply negligee") showcases his trademark dry sense of humor.
Ultimately, Merritt doesn't need to rely on obscure themes to pull his songs together; they stand unified just as collections of finely crafted pop tunes.
-- Catherine P. Lewis, Weekend (Jan. 2010)