"I have a strange relationship to variety," singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt said in a 2008 NY Times interview. "I like variety." Merritt's prolific work accurately reflects his statement -- from leading his band, The Magnetic Fields, to working on numerous side projects, including a recent scoring of an Off Broadway musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman's tale Coraline.
Realism, The Magnetic Fields' third in a "no synths" trilogy, shifts away from the wash of Jesus and Mary Chain-esque noise/feedback of the previous Distortion, while drawing a clear distinction from the first of the trilogy i, and its more spare, pop-laden sound. Not to say that Realism isn't a pop record -- an excellent one at that.
Merritt's broad approach takes on the idea of the Western folk genre, rearranging mainly the U.S. and British songbooks, while employing a deceptively dense sound, cleverly combining elements from the two previous releases of the trilogy.
From the 1960s British pastoral influence on the opening cut, "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" (lyrically filled with trademark Merritt sarcasm), to "Better Things," a Beatles' Rubber Soul-like pop/folk/psychedelia treatment, including eastern Indian folk touches (in melody and instrumentation), one is struck with the vast musical variety Merritt employs, and with his discreet subversion. He subtly undermines the elegant, Brian Wilson-influenced "I Don't Know What to Say." Merritt flips the "normal" expectations of production, accentuating what would be the backing instruments, while placing the vocal parts lower in the mix.
Realism contains the unmistakable deadpan delivery known in Merritt's past work, however the tone of the lead vocals are nearly stripped of emotion. "I don't believe in sincerity in music," Merritt commented in a recent interview with Drowned in Sound. "I don't understand what it would mean." Instead, he allows the music, the eccentrically varied instrumentation, and the songs to carry the emotional weight. The Magnetic Fields' core members, including longtime collaborators, instrumentalist John Woo, cellist Sam Davol, accordionist/vocalist Daniel Handler, vocalist/violinist Shirley Simms, and MF co-founder (since high school) and instrumentalist Claudia Gonson, execute Merritt's vision with, well, great sincerity and downplayed virtuosity. It's Merritt's Wrecking Crew (referring to the crack team of ’60s LA session players), who exhibit, once again, their ability to play and get inside different musical forms to follow the songwriter's wide focus.
Merritt is also capable of writing a truly heartbreaking song, and he does. The masterful "From a Sinking Boat," with its lone cello line, followed by a lone piano line, is majestic and melancholic.
With The Magnetic Fields' 10th album, the final section of the "no synths" trilogy, Realism may just be their finest recording to date. Though in some degree Merritt may be "taking a piss" at the folk genre, he has also exposed how encompassing the genre is, and what gems are to be had in this immense variety.