Thank goodness for sturdy institutions. Just over 10 years after the iconic 69 Love Songs, we are blessed with another platter from the ensemble who brought you a consensus indie rock Desert Island Disc. The Stephen Merritt brand of mature indie pop has produced a series of consistently solid recordings going back almost 20 years, including 90s classics like Holiday, Get Lost, and The Charm of the Highway Strip in addition to the aforementioned three-disc magnum opus. However, heavy hangs the head that bears the crown — the burden of an outstanding back catalog has proven more of a curse than a blessing to other indie pop pillars. There are two major trajectories for careers as excellent and durable as The Magnetic Fields’: produce tepid rehashes that at best resemble the spark that made the seminal works so vital, or continue to make relevant and challenging music that revitalizes itself as years pass. In other words, have the Mag Fields aged like R.E.M. and Weezer or more like Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth? Realism can be used to support either position. If you even have a passing familiarity with Merritt’s ensemble of collaborators, you know exactly what to expect from this album. This may register to some as a disappointment, but it is worth asking what exactly is wrong with sticking to what works if it works this well.
Intended as a companion piece to 2008’s Distortion, there is nothing here that will surprise or rattle longstanding fans. While that album broke rank by setting Merritt’s musings to heavily fuzzed guitars, Realism is a strictly acoustic offering. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: on Realism, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Stephen Merritt performs with a number of longtime collaborators (including singers Claudia Gonson, Shirley Simms, Daniel Handler, and Johny Blood, as well as string players Sam Devol, Ida Pearle, and John Woo) in a variety of short chamber-pop songs that feature non-traditional “rock” lineups, eschewing distorted guitar, bass, and drums in favor of accordions, banjos, brass instruments, and string sections. The songs draw stylistic inspiration from a century’s worth of pop genres, from Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin through traditional folk and Americana. Most of the 14 tracks clock in at under three minutes, with the three-minute, twenty-six second “From A Sinking Boat” representing the longest song. Vocal duties are distributed more or less evenly among four singers, each representing a distinct style and register. Ultra-standard three- and four-chord progressions form the backbone of every song. The lyrics are literate, humorous, melancholic, and perceptive; they are the most impressive quality of the album.
As someone who often laments the lack of quality lyrics exhibited in the indie-pop sphere as a whole, I always find Merritt’s wordsmithing to be a breath of fresh air. This contributes greatly to a prevailing ethos that, in spite of its decidedly twee instrumentation, constitutes some of the most “adult” pop music in the contemporary canon. Best described as misanthropy with a heart of gold, Realism — in keeping with the rest of The Magnetic Fields’ catalog — unflinchingly combines cynicism and sentimentality, as evidenced in standout tracks like opener “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind” or “Seduced And Abandoned,” where Merritt casts himself as a female protagonist left at the altar. To those familiar with The Magnetic Fields’ previous work, the cognitive dissonance between saccharine melodies and piercing, often brutal words (in “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind,” for example, a scene involving a lover crawling back on their knees is compared to “an apendectomy sans anesthesia”) barely raises an eyebrow. It is this tension that has always been central to the charm and humor of Merritt’s work. Even the tracks that seem like throwaways — “We’re Having A Hootenanny” and “The Dada Polka” fit the bill — have the same place-holding function as similar songs from 90s Magnetic Fields records like Get Lost and Holiday (and, let’s be honest, much of 69 Love Songs), setting the stage for the less frivolous songs that anchor the album.
Ultimately, Realism neither impresses nor disappoints. If the three post-69 Love Songs Magnetic Fields albums represent what we can expect from Stephen Merritt and company in coming years, there is no reason to stop paying attention; similarly, those who have called any of Merritt’s previous work overly precious will find ammunition to support that claim. It may be unreasonable to expect our beloved icons to constantly reinvent themselves, particularly when they have crafted a style that is as unique and distinctive as The Mag Fields’. Here’s to another 20 years of mature, perceptive songwriting, in which case Merritt would easily join the ranks of his idols, the great 20th-century American songwriters like Berlin, Gershwin, and Cole Porter. Who could ask for anything more?