Magnetic Fields – Realism (Nonesuch)
By my count, “Realism” is the ninth record from the Magnetic Fields, an ensemble that’s essentially a vehicle for the songwriter Stephin Merritt. Merritt is a busy guy, sitting around in gay bars writing songs all day. Hey, that’s what he says. He sure is prolific. Between Magnetic Fields, The Gothic Archies, the 6ths, and Future Bible Heroes, heck, he barely has time to eat, although he is fond of Scandinavian dairy products. But I digress.
Glad to be unhappy (Rodgers-Hart reference – Merritt would like that), Mr. Merritt lives in a world of melody and wit. And by golly if you relish such qualities Magnetic Fields is for you. Having made his masterpiece, the sprawling “69 Love Songs” in 1999, Merritt amuses himself with varying the sonic textures of his work — he's completely abandoned the synth-pop that established his work. The Magnetic Fields' last record, “Distortion,” lived up to its name, avowedly something of a tribute to the Jesus and Mary Chain (although Merritt is capable of the glibly facetious), the song craft was still pure Merritt. “Realism” dials back the decibels, eschewing electric instrumentation almost entirely and employing diverse instrumentation (how about flugelhorn, Cajon, accordion, banjo, etc.) well beyond the usual folkie palette. Both, the volume dial-back and the acoustic instrumentation are perfect for these hurt, bitter, but oddly blithe songs.
One could spend the day quoting from Merritt’s dour, witty songs. I shan’t. Vaguely comparable: Stuart Murdoch’s writing for Belle & Sebastian and God Help the Girl, although Murdoch is a sad humanist and Merritt is a borderline misanthrope — albeit a lovable one. Neil Hannon’s work with the Divine Comedy has a kinship with Merritt’s, but Hannon is a morally ambivalent European flatterer while Merritt is something of a New England scold for all his love of personal liberty. What else can you call the author of a jolly, but scathing putdown like “You Must Be Out of Your Mind?” It’s hard to imagine any other contemporary songwriter producing a Rudy Valli-like, Twenties homage/parody with the nod and a wink ambivalence of “Seduced and Abandoned” — Randy Newman, maybe?
Finally, Stephin Merritt is a post-rock Stephen Sondheim in search of a new Broadway, perhaps a Broadway for smarter people, indeed smarter people than those who typically support Broadway. Such is his dilemma. He’s too blisteringly direct for polite set. And he’s too literate for ninety-percent of, well, college rockers. The gentleman sure has a way with words and tunes, though, and a lovely, refined recital like “Realism” makes a fine case for his art.
* EXCAVATIONS = I've written forever. Well before Reverberations entered the blogosphere. WithEXCAVATIONS, we'll occasionally feature some of my work from the vaults. Some pieces will be dashed off reviews for use at Kief's Downtown Music, others will have been from periodicals like the Kansas City Star, The Tornado, The Kansas City Free Press, or others. The intent? It's simple, to give Reverberations readers a look at some older writings, and to plug some records that still sound fine to these ears.