The Magnetic Fields: Realism
Stephin Merritt’s dryly sardonic pop band makes a “folk” album — and nearly drowns in its own high concepts.
A great piece of art scars its creator forever. That’s what seems to have happened with The Magnetic Fields. The primary creative outlet for songwriter/producer/basso profundo/multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt made its commercial breakthrough (roughly a decade into its recorded career) with 1999’s 69 Love Songs, a three-CD monolith that was exactly what its title promised, and more: a cracked tour of the “American popular song” tradition and its offshoots, a formalist extravaganza, a triumph both as straightforward craft and as loving subversion.
It also raised the question of what Merritt could possibly do for an encore. (“It’s a stunt,” he told me when I interviewed him about 69 Love Songs, then still work in progress, in 1998. “It’s Evel Knievel jumping over 69 cars.”) For the past decade, most of his projects have been smaller leaps: a set of songs for Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Fortunate Events” books recorded under the name the Gothic Archies, some theater collaborations with Chen Shi-zheng, a score for the stage musical version of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline.” Two more Magnetic Fields albums appeared in 2004 and 2008, each assembled around a formal conceit more rigorous than any of their pre-69 albums’. i was a set of songs involving first-person perspective (not necessarily Merritt’s) whose titles all began with the letter I, sequenced in alphabetical order; Distortion piled massive amounts of feedback on everything as a tribute to the formal purity of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Psychocandy.
And yet there are the gifts that Merritt probably couldn’t shake off if he tried: perfectly formed melodies, a mastery of arrangement that makes every instrument sound like it was built specifically for his purposes, a knack for loading affectless singing with emotional force.
And now there’s Realism, another sort of stunt album. The argument to which it responds seems to go that “realness” is a great virtue in pop music–that the highest form of song is a direct, unfiltered expression of its singer’s emotions. (Therefore, singer-songwriters are better than singers performing other people’s songs, instruments played in real time are better than synthesizers and programmed rhythms, acoustic instruments are what you use if you want to sound really earnest, and so on; this is another way of saying that every other kind of music just wishes it could be the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’60s.)
Merritt’s response to that argument is, effectively: okay, you bastards, if that’s what you want, come and get it. Realism is almost entirely performed with acoustic instrumentation (some guitars, but also harp, toy piano, accordion, “found” percussion, and so on); its songs toy with the tropes of folk music, not in the sense of songs of unknown authorship that belong to the oral tradition but rather in the sense of pop with acoustic instrumentation (the “folk music” of ’60s starlets). The joke is, of course, that it could not possibly be more affected, more constructed, less “real” or less real-sounding–and that the mere fact of its being pop music does as much to make it unreal as anything about the particular details of its composition and performance and recording.
But Realism-as-“realism” seems like a riposte to a straw man. In the ’90s, the idea that a square, history-steeped, not particularly loud, grooveless, timbre-obsessed, deeply formalist little band like the Magnetic Fields could be part of a punk rock-dominated alternative-music landscape was surprising and thrilling. In 2010, when the alternative-music landscape’s champions include Animal Collective, the Dirty Projectors, the Decemberists and Grizzly Bear–none of whom particularly privilege “realness”–and when doctrinaire rock ‘n’ roll star Bruce Springsteen has released a Magnetic Fields soundalike song (“Girls In Their Summer Clothes”), it’s not such a big deal. The problem may simply be that some of Merritt’s ideas have already won their battles.
Or it could be that he’s letting the album’s concept do most of the work. If Merritt’s stock-in-trade is, as Robert Christgau once put it, “more songs about songs and songs,” then Realism seems at first in danger of being more Magnetic Fields songs about Magnetic Fields songs and Magnetic Fields songs. Its opener, “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” has a Fields-by-numbers arrangement right down to its cello countermelody, and a lyric that covers pretty much the same territory as 69 Love Songs’ opener, “Absolutely Cuckoo.” “The Dolls’ Tea Party,” with its plinky toy pianos, is a lesser variation on Merritt’s (delightful) “Coraline” songs.
It may be unfair to expect an artist as deeply invested in the idea of genre and conventions as Merritt is to move beyond his own. (“Do something a little out of character it won’t kill you,” he mutters on “The Dada Polka,” supposedly a previously unreleased track recorded in the ’80s.) The way he’s using genre on Realism, though, sometimes threatens to turn the Magnetic Fields into a novelty act. There’s always been a touch of comedy about Merritt’s lyrics, but his best jokes–think of 69 Love Songs’ “Papa Was a Rodeo,” or “Strange Powers”‘ romantic evocation of a ferris-wheel scene “under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand”–come off as the bubbling-up of real bitterness or despair. Even “The Nun’s Litany,” the jokiest song on Distortion, was also the most cutting: an escalating catalogue of depravities that doubles as a dead-on commentary on longing for sexual identity.
Realism‘s “Seduced and Abandoned,” on the other hand, is nothing but a jape: a broad burlesque of he-done-me-wrong folk laments, sung by Merritt in his most cod-lugubrious Irish balladeer’s voice. “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree,” a sort of “Daydream Believer”/Donovan pastiche, runs out of ideas after a minute or so and throws in a beery chorale sung in German: ha ha. (It does, however, include the album’s emblematic line: “Must your every word be sincere?” Both the sentiment and the syntax are pure Merritt.) The cult-folk singalong “We Are Having a Hootenanny” features a jolly ensemble declaiming “Come and take our personality quizzzzzz!” It’s funny once.
And yet there are the gifts that Merritt probably couldn’t shake off if he tried: perfectly formed melodies, a mastery of arrangement that makes every instrument sound like it was built specifically for his purposes, a knack for loading affectless singing with emotional force. (The way he intones “you must be out of your mind, son” is both funnier and more striking than the way he rhymes “down on your knees, yeah” with “sans anesthesia” a few seconds earlier.) Nearly every song here includes elements so beautifully executed that the clinkers and infelicities wrapped up with them are doubly irksome.
The one inarguable keeper on Realism is “Always Already Gone,” a gorgeous waltz-time farewell whose sole joke is that its hook lifts a turn of phrase from modish literary theory. It’s not particularly a folk song, or an acoustic song; it doesn’t have anything much to do with the album’s theme. It’s just a melancholy, immaculately formed thing. And the fact that it stands out in its company suggests a weird leftover shard of rockism lurking near the heart of this least rockist of bands: the idea that the album takes precedence over the song–that formal gestures are more meaningfully applied to a suite of songs than to an individual three-minute tune. It’s strange and frustrating that Merritt, with his enormous command of pop history, keeps aiming for concept albums at the expense of individual songs. He’s capable of much more than stunts.