Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Few moments stand out from The Magnetic Fields’ lazy, nondescript ‘Realism’

The 2000s saw Stephin Merritt, mastermind behind several groups, all of which play his music and most of which feature him singing it in some capacity or another: The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies: branch out considerably. Rather than maintain his insane prolificacy, which yielded over 11 albums, most of which were quite good if not exceptional, in the 2000s he released only two Magnetic Fields albums, i and Distortion, and moved to Los Angeles for the purpose of making 50 movie musicals. In the meantime, he wrote music and lyrics for an adaptation of “Coraline” that ran last summer and took on other musical projects, some of which are collected on 2006’s Showtunes.

Perhaps to make making records interesting again, his last three Magnetic Fields albums have been made under the rule “no synths,” effectively eliminating his most useful instrument from his repertoire and turning the band into an understated chamber-folk outfit. As a followup to Distortion, where he buried the songs beneath layers of Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired feedback, Realism is an homage to ’60s orchestral folk; there are no electric instruments and no percussion played with any sticks or mallets. It’s also the weakest and laziest album of the three, the kind of music that Merritt can produce without a minute of investment.

It all sounds very ornate and beautifully recorded, but like Merritt’s worst work it rarely steps outside of the confines of genre exercise. “We Are Having a Hootenanny” never really does anything with its seemingly parodic Country Western arrangement, and “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” never gets anywhere. “Walk A Lonely Road” sounds like a number of very good Stephin Merritt songs, but nothing makes it stand out; its familiar melodies and old ideas are made with new machinery. “Seduced And Abandoned” is one to add to the very long list of songs where Merritt’s protagonists get lonely and drink a whole lot with a punchline or two thrown in.

A few moments, however, stand out nicely. “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind” is one of the best songs of the year; Merritt and singer Shirley Simms sing in unison over the entire song, and the effect turns Merritt’s already low voice into gravel in the best way possible. The song is unbelievably busy, but it seems near-perfect. “The Dolls’ Tea Party” falls nicely within the confines of his warped takes on childrens’ music. The toy piano and bells serve perfectly to contrast the childish yet seemingly adult concerns: who’s best and worst dressed, a cake’s caloric content, “who’s done whom wrong”: and emphasizes the emptiness of its targets effectively. “The Dada Polka” also sounds like an early, synth-heavy Magnetic Fields song, and it gets by predominantly on the novelty of hearing a lo-fi synth-pop arrangement made on acoustic instruments.

When the band toured behind Distortion in 2008, the album benefited from the fact that the live performances, perhaps as a consequence of Merritt’s hyperacusis: a condition that makes certain sounds, like live drums and applause, become painfully loud in his left ear: presented the songs ornately and simply, not at all as they appeared on the album. Realism, however, will sound more or less exactly the same; it’s a melodically gorgeous album, but one that simply doesn’t push Merritt’s songwriting in anything resembling a new direction. He has, however, stated that his next record will likely be all about the current generation of synthesizer technology; I can’t help but be excited about that.

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