When Stephin Merritt released 69 Love Songs he made one big mistake, he’d produced an album so good that he was unlikely to ever better it. In the subsequent years he has released some interesting, although not always successful, side projects and a couple of Magnetic Fields albums that have failed to set the world alight.
One of the problems has been a decision to base his albums on a strict cohesive theme. The follow up to 69 Love Songs, I, featured songs that all began with the titular letter and was the first to have the “no synths” stamp. Distortion was a tribute to the Jesus and Mary Chain and rapped all the songs in fuzz and feedback.
Realism continues in the same slightly problematic vein, the theme this time being a focus on folky instrumentation and a softer sound. Like the two albums before it is manages to be good without hitting anything like the greatness that Merritt is capable of.
The album starts well with ‘You Must Be Out Of Your Mind’ an unmistakeable Magnetic Fields melody with Merritt’s withering put downs. “I no longer drink enough to think you’re witty” he sings to a former lover.
Your appreciation of the album as a whole is likely to depend to some extent on your tolerance for campness. This album is by far the campest he has produced under the Magnetic Fields moniker. ‘The Doll’s Tea Party’ followed by ‘Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree’ could be a camp coupling too far for many listeners. The listener who perseveres will hear one of the albums high points, the melancholy ‘Walk A Lonely Road’.
The final third of the album is strong with the fun ‘Dada Polka’ and the mournful ‘From A Sinking Boat’ closing the album with some real quality.
It is an accomplished album with some real variety on show in the song writing. If Merritt would drop his obsession with setting restrictive themes for his albums, and allowed the variety of sound and arrangement that made 69 Love Songs such a success, then it would be that much better. As it is we have a good album produced by a pretty original and unique figure.
I hope that he decides to allow synths on his next album and embraces the grand scope of ideas that made 69 Love Songs such an amazing album. Until then Realism will do the job just fine
By Dorian Rogers, Jan 2010