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The Magnetic Fields Realism Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Consistently confirms what an unusually inventive arranger Stephin Merritt is.

Andrew Mueller 2010

The Magnetic Fields’ 2008 album, Distortion, was a wilful, pugnacious hymn to its own title, revelling gleefully in its lack of resemblance to any previous Magnetic Fields album. Stephin Merritt’s characteristically crisp lyrical sketches were suddenly shrouded in squalls of Jesus & Mary Chain-ish effects, and the passing listener could have been forgiven for wondering whether he had finally abandoned the erudite indictments of Cupid that have characterised his career in favour of anguished, primal wailing.

Any and all such concerns are assuaged by the opening track of Realism, The Magnetic Fields’ ninth album. You Must Be Out of Your Mind is absolutely prime Merritt – an arrangement of strings and banjo at once sumptuous and lo-fi, an ambitious and instantly beguiling melody, and a typically waspish lyric that confirms Merritt’s stature as the most inventive rhymer in the American lineage since Tom Lehrer: “I want you crawling back to me / Down on your knees, yeah,” he admonishes, “Like an appendectomy / sans anaesthesia”.

Realism was apparently conceived as a companion volume to Distortion – original working titles were True and False ­– and there would have been a certain logic to that arrangement: Realism finds The Magnetic Fields returning to previously established patterns and parameters (within their canon, Realism is most closely related to 1999’s mordant epic 69 Love Songs). This is, of course, absolutely no problem. Merritt’s songs are, as ever, as lugubrious yet playful as his voice. On Seduced And Abandoned he imagines himself pregnant and jilted at the altar (“I did nothing but cry / In my one-ply / Negligee”); deadpan carol Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree is as sarcastic as might be imagined; and We Are Having a Hootenanny appears to be a square-dance called by a Scientology spruiker (“Come and take our personality quiz,” entices the second verse).

The rule governing Realism’s sessions was that no instrument that required plugging in would be admitted to the studio. The sound throughout is nevertheless trademark Magnetic Fields – that strange gothic folk composed of whimsical flights of toytown piano, knelling banjo and mandolin, pretty strings, grumbling tubas, consistently confirming what unusually inventive arrangers Merritt and his cohorts are (not for the first time, the only real peers called to mind are Neil Hannon’s Divine Comedy). It may all amount to a band doing what they’ve done before, but given nobody else does anything like this, that’s entirely welcome.

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