When The Magnetic Fields last put some tracks down on tape with Distortion, we saw the band with a wash of feedback and, well, distortion. They return, however, with Realism, a record with cleaner production, purposefully, and one that allows the minimalist chamber pop group to open up their doors once again to the more enchanting orchestration of mastermind Stephin Merritt.
Choosing to open the album with “You Must Be Losing Your Mind” is an appropriate choice for the group, as it reflects the traditional songwriting structure that the band used to win over so man fans with 69 Love Songs. Combining the low-end vocals of Merritt with Claudia Gonson creates a sublime juxtaposition. Musically, it also goes back a bit, which will immediately remind avid fans, and new listeners, how great the band can be when they’re at their best.
By the third song, you find the group at their most playful during “We Are Having a Hootenanny.” Well, lyrically, its extremely playful, especially with the buzz Merritt attaches to words ending in “s” or “z.” For some listeners, this will be the precise moment when they get lost in the joy that is the listening experience of having The Magnetic Fields on repeat. Sure, the lyrics aren’t something that will shake you to your core, but the wit used with the rhyme schemes, as well as supplying bountiful oddities, always creates a pleasurable listen.
“Walk a Lonely Road” and “I Don’t Know What to Say” are those perfect pop moments that we all appreciate in Merritt. You find him low in the vocal range, barely above the level of the music itself, which makes you listen even more closely. Gentle strumming of the ukulele, or one of its cousins, in these songs consistently resembles some sort of medieval folk tune, which is perhaps why they get lumped into the chamber pop group. Still, for me, there is always something magical in those moments, as if I’m listening to something that I feel doesn’t fit into my everyday listening, yet it only makes me adore it even more. If you listen to “Seduced and Abandoned,” and do not feel yourself immediately transported back to the times of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms then perhaps you’re not listening close enough.
Yet, the one thing that keeps this album from rising to the top of the band’s overall catalog, which in all honesty is near perfect. There seems to be a lacking in creativity that was present early on in the album, despite having “The Dada Polka” near the record’s end. For some reason, you feel as if the earlier passion and creativity sort of ran out near the end of recording; it loses the cohesiveness of the album as a whole. Still, there is the saving grace in “From a Sinking Boat.”
It’s strange, but the end of The Magnetic Fields‘ albums always has this one brilliant moment that inevitably brings you back to falling in love with the band. Once again, you find the cello entertaining the tinkering piano, while Merritt sings, barely audible above the instrumentation. It’s a slow mover, yet it’s a bookend to the entire album. It closes with a bright moment, just as it began. While the moments in between may not always be the band’s best, it’s hard to find something truly wrong with any of the songs in this collection; this is just another record to enjoy time and time again, as like all MF albums, Realism sort of feels timeless.
Download: The Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out Of Your Mind [MP3]