Singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt originally conceived Realism, The Magnetic Fields’ third Nonesuch release, as a companion to the group’s brash 2008 Distortion, though the more tremulous listeners among us can rest assured they won’t have to frantically reach for the volume-control knob this time. Realism, at least on its decorous surface, comes across as a flipside to Distortion, the aural opposite of that clangorous homage to industrial pop of the Jesus and Mary Chain.
“I thought of the two records as a pair,” Merritt reveals, “and I kind of wanted them to be called True and False. But I couldn’t decide which I wanted to be called True and which I wanted to be called False. They both have to do with the notions of truth and falsehood in recording and music—not particularly with the lyrics but with the production style. Distortion went as far as one could really go in the direction of stylized noise-pop, which is probably the limit of stylization in rock before it turns into some other genre. And Realism is folk, although I couldn’t really bring myself to go all the way with folk. I can’t stand the sound of an acoustic guitar for more than three minutes at a time. So I didn’t go really, really folk, I thought I would go in a ’variety folk’ format, like a Judy Collins or a Judy Henkse album. Most of my favorite records are variety records. Distortion was one monolithic production idea and Realism is a more kaleidoscopic approach to a genre.”
Merritt was inspired by the orchestrated British folk of the late ’60s / early ’70s, which had evolved beyond the strictures of traditional music following sustained exposure to the psychedelic movement, and by the groundbreaking work of arranger-producer Joshua Rifkin on Collins’ In My Life and Wildflowers. Says Merritt, “It was as if the world were put on one record, where you have absolutely no idea what’s coming next. I like that in radio programming. I like it when I’m deejaying, I like doing it on my own records. With Collins’ records, there are hardly any musicians in common from track to track and each song is written by a different person.” Merritt, of course, writes everything himself. “I just pretend to be a lot of different writers.”
He brings the concision of a three-minute pop-song to each of the 13 tracks on Realism. As he puts it, “I like songs short; I don’t go for big statements in general. I find it difficult to listen, say, to Beethoven. I prefer small cozy, charming, subtle things, not masterpieces and epics.” The tracks here range from the trippy, toy-box melodies of "The Dolls' Tea Party" and "Painted Flower" to the almost alarmingly insistent, group sing-along of “We Are Having a Hootenany.” “Seduced and Abandoned,” in which Merritt himself essays the role of a woman impregnated then spurned at the altar, features a sad circus-like melody with mournful tuba; “Interlude” is a spare, elegant ballroom dance, dreamily recalled from afar. There's even a deceptively festive holiday number, “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree,” featuring a lusty chorus sung in German.
1. You Must Be Out of Your Mind
3. We Are Having a Hootenanny
4. I Don't Know What to Say
5. The Dolls' Tea Party
6. Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree
7. Walk a Lonely Road
8. Always Already Gone
9. Seduced and Abandoned
10. Better Things
11. Painted Flower
12. The Dada Polka
13. From a Sinking Boat