Magnetic Fields

Realism

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AllMusic Review by

All it takes is a few seconds into Realism’s familiar first track (the warm, wily, and weary "You Must Be out of Your Mind") to jump to the conclusion that Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt has simply run out of musical motifs with which to embed his seemingly endless supply of biting, bittersweet lyrics. Happily, that’s not the case, as the remaining 12 songs on Realism show significant musical growth for one of pop music’s greatest corner bar-, heartbreak-, and sarcasm-obsessed napkin poets. The antithesis of 2008’s noisy Distortion, Realism revels in folk music in a way that hasn’t appeared on a Magnetic Fields album since 1990’s Distant Plastic Trees. The songs sound just like their titles would suggest, with "We Are Having a Hootenanny" doing just that, "The Doll’s Tea Party" conjuring up images of pastoral English gardens, and "Seduced and Abandoned" suggesting the wee hours of a Tin Pan Alley cabaret. Merritt, who wields a voice that has grown from that of a disheartened, mumbling wallflower to a classy, full-throated baritone, peppers each tune (as well as those sung by the lovely Claudia Gonson) with the usual witticisms (“I want you crawling back to me/Down on your knees/Like an appendectomy”), but there’s an elegance to his prose this time around that suggests there's not only a musical sea change at work. By far his most listenable and fully realized work since 1999’s mammoth 69 Love Songs, Realism feels slight because it is. It’s hard to hear someone so adept with a poison pen preen instead of brood, but it’s also rewarding. In the end, longtime fans will want to go back to the opening cut and seek out the comfort of those familiar first three chords that, like a seasoned bluesman with his E to A to B, have become synonymous with their creator, but hopefully, they’ll decide to take another trip through the countryside, soak in some much needed sun, and let bygones be bygones.

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