You may not be surprised to learn that a band called ‘The Magnetic Fields,’ whose last album was named Distortion, have not always had acoustic pre-occupations. However, singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt consciously decided to take the noise out of his noise-pop, and the results are certainly worth a listen.
Merritt described it as ‘my folk album’, and opener ‘You Must Be Out Of Your Mind’ reflects the best side of this. It is a touching yet catchy song, with plenty of banjo, which is always a plus. It’s a shame that the rest of of the album is not quite as good, but it is a high bar set early.
Some miss that mark by a fair distance, however. ‘We Are Having a Hootenanny’ is as pointless as the title would have you believe, with the band giving you the ‘lowdown on our hoe-down’. No thanks. Other irreverent numbers like ‘The Dolls Tea Party’ work better, and the acoustic/banjo instrumentation is effective, as on the opener. The charm offensive continues onto ‘Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree’, but it rings more false. It is a pretty baffling effort, leaving one wondering where exactly the ‘realism’ enters into this album.
‘Always Already Gone’ is a thankfully received reminder of the band’s potential, with luscious string arrangements and ‘God Only Knows’ vocals, and as the album picks up itself back up towards the end, the closer ‘From a Sinking Boat’ doesn’t tempt fate too much. In ‘The Dada Polka’ Merritt tells his audience to ‘Do something strange’.
This album might have been seriously good, but unfortunately it is at times self-consciously idiosyncratic. This might reflect Merritt’s noise-pop past, but it is better that he went for the genre-switch with conviction and confidence, rather than a timid, clichéd effort. For the least that can be said about Realism is that it is interesting. In the best and worst senses of the word.