The Magnetic Fields, 'Realism' (Nonesuch)

Critical Mass
Label: Nonesuch

by Spencer Kornhaber

Stephin Merritt has spent almost 20 years writing songs about wanting what he can't have. Eventually, you'd expect the guy would use up every conceivable metaphor, rhyming couplet, and sick joke about his unrequited loves. In apparent acknowledgment of this on his group's ninth album, Merritt gloomily intones a song called "I Don't Know What to Say," noting, "I could say 'I want you'...that'd be a bore."

So it's refreshing that Realism subjects Merritt's old themes to a bit of, well, realism. Stunningly blending American country, English folk, and Victorian pomp, the album documents a life resigned to sadness amid a world brimming with beauty both real and fake. The ornate, interlocking layers of banjo, violin, and triangle on opener "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" almost seem cruel paired with the lyrics' exasperated rejection of some puppy-eyed ex-lover. "You can't go around just saying stuff because it's pretty," goes one line that presumably Merritt has heard before.

Like most of his music with Magnetic Fields, Realism is funny. On "We Are Having a Hootenanny," smiling Scientologists hold hoedowns for anyone who will take a personality quiz; elsewhere, the plink of a toy piano cheers along an invitation to a doll's imaginary tea party. But it's also Merritt's darkest work yet: Our laughs are at the expense of the abject hopes of the lonely.

WATCH: The Magnetic Fields, "We Are Having a Hootenanny"



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