Stephin Merritt is, by no stretch of imagination, ambitious. Within the past 19 years, the baritone has overseen a wide array of releases under the Magnetic Fields moniker. Setting a heavy pace through most of the 1990s, the Magnetic Fields released a constant stream of albums, culminating in 1999’s “69 Love Songs,” a collection of 69 tongue-in-cheek tunes about love.
Although it seemed as if they may have finally run out of ideas, Merritt and his crew emerged from a five-year-hiatus in 2004 with a new and ambitious project: a “no-synth” trilogy of albums which can be considered a bizarre turn for the former synthpop band.
Following 2004’s “i,” a collection of songs dealing with the self, and the heavy drone of 2008’s “Distortion,” “Realism” brings the trilogy to a close. With the exception of “The Dada Polka,” none of the songs on the album feature traditional drums or electric guitar, relying almost exclusively on acoustic instruments.
From the album opener “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” it’s clear that “Realism” is cut from a different cloth than anything Merritt has ever attempted before. Chimes and bells clink and glisten gently, cushioned by warm swaths of acoustic guitar. The lyrics, typical of Merritt, maintain his dry wit, something akin to that of House M.D. Yet one of the most notable aspects of the album is the increased vocal presence of Claudia Gonson, who ultimately comes to define several songs such as “The Dolls’ Tea Party.” Other highlights include the ethnically-tinged “I Don’t Know What to Say,” the whimsical “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree,” and the melancholy album closer “From a Sinking Boat.”
However, “Realism” does have its flaws. Although the album is a decidedly acoustic affair, the production is overbearing at times with far too much compression and reverb. As a result, the music occasionally becomes cluttered and lost in the mix.
Despite these shortcomings, “Realism” is an enjoyable listen. New listeners may be better off starting with “69 Love Songs,” but “Realism” is a must for even a casual Merritt fan.