THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – Realism (2010)

Stephen Merritt doesn’t have anything left to prove to the music community. The Magnetic Fields’ 1999 triple-album 69 Love Songs was an achievement that most artists can only dream of; it wasn’t noteworthy because it actually did contain 69 love songs, but because all the songs were fascinating. As grand as the idea behind the work was, the end result was astounding because of the amount of life Merritt breathed into them. Since 69 Love Songs, the band have gradually been releasing albums that are part of a trilogy, a trilogy defined by absence (of synthesizers, in this case), rather than presence. 2004’s i was the first of these, a first-person pronoun-centric collection of what were surprisingly elegant acoustic arrangements. 2008’s Distortion stood in marked contrast to i; the songs here were absolutely lovely, their Brian Wilson by way of Kevin Shields atmosphere something wonderful to lose yourself in. Now in 2010 we have the final part of the trilogy, Realism. Unfortunately, this album feels like a regression in many ways, taking the most off-putting elements of i and marrying them with what feels like a sarcastic childrens album from Hell.

This on its own doesn’t necessarily make for a bad album (at least not on paper). I’m sure Ween could turn such a thing into a masterpiece, or at the very least, something on par with La Cucaracha. But Stephen Merritt’s wit and humor are not served well at all by these puzzlingly snide songs. True, there are a few times on Realism where Merritt hits the rights notes, most notably on the opening track, You Must Be Out of Your Mind; it’s the only flawless song on the album, sounding like it could’ve been an acoustic b-side of California Girls from Distortion. The melodies and tone are similar, but the instrumentation is totally different, with You Must Be Out of Your Mind favoring chamber pop lyricism over fuzzed-out bliss. A few other songs work in spite of odd stylistic choices (Better Things would be worth listening to if those nauseating bird sounds would’ve been left out). But mostly, Realism leaves you with a sour feeling, the kind of sour feeling that comes only when a brilliant artist creates something that has thoroughly forsaken their abilities – and nothing having been gained from their creative sacrifice.

Realism is the quickest follow-up album The Magnetic Fields have released in ages; the four or five year wait period between albums that has become customary was cut down to just to just two here. Merritt said that he thinks of Distortion and Realism as a pair, and I believe him – there’s certainly a bond between the albums that exists solely because of the differences between them (it’s not just a “they have similar cover art!” thing). But bond or no bond, there’s no denying that Realism is disturbingly inferior. Well, now that this trilogy is out of the way, perhaps a return to synths is in order. Get Lost pt. II anyone?

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