Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Insincerity

The Magnetic Fields - Realism (Nonesuch)

Anyone who still thinks that Americans don’t get irony should be pointed to the work of Stephin Merritt immediately. In fact, in titling the latest Magnetic Fields album ‘Realism’, Merritt has taken his laconic wit to new levels. As ever, Merritt is being slippery and disingenuous here – there’s no greater level of sincerity or honesty than on previous Magnetic Fields albums, and plenty of familiar wordplay and dry humour.

In packaging design and sonic intent, ‘Realism’ is clearly intended as a flip side to the Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired ‘Distortion’. It dispenses not only with that album’s overpowering swathes of noise, but also with all synthesisers, using only acoustic instruments. There’s an obvious problem here that few critics seem to have observed, namely that Merritt has used this particular sonic conceit before, on the album ‘i’. The two albums are not identical by any means – on ‘I’ Merritt sang every song, whereas here he makes bountiful use of guest vocalist Shirley Simms. ‘Realism’ also pays more explicit debts to folk music, and not every song title begins with the letter ‘I’. The similarities probably outweigh the differences though – and there will be no great surprises here for long term followers of Merritt’s work. It’s probably fair to say that this is symptomatic of a wider malaise. Merritt’s magnum opus ’69 Love Songs’ was both an ambitious undertaking and a massive success. Understandably, he has struggled to know exactly how to better it.

This doesn’t mean that the subsequent Magnetic Fields projects have been bad – to the contrary, there are some excellent songs spread across them. It’s just that none has seemed quite so conceptually and musically compelling, or as uniquely ludicrous. It’s actually Merritt’s side projects, the fascinating ‘Showtunes’ album and the musical interpretation of the Lemony Snicket books as The Gothic Archies, which have provided more original and adventurous takes on his by now familiar songwriting tropes.

‘Realism’, then, is another adequate Magnetic Fields album, albeit one that focuses more on Merritt’s purposeful parodies than on his best pop writing. I always feel Magnetic Fields songs are best when they can be interpreted either as ironic commentaries (as the famously acerbic Merritt no doubt intended them), or as pithy expressions of identifiable and real human experience. ‘The Book of Love’ works like this, hence Peter Gabriel was able to cover it as a disarmingly straight (in more than one sense), string-laden ballad for his forthcoming ‘Scratch My Back’ project (quite what Gabriel song Merritt plans to deconstruct in return is anyone’s guess). The first half of ‘Realism’ favours unashamedly silly, nursery rhyme-esque ditties like ‘We Are Having A Hootenanny’ (‘get the lowdown on our hoedown’), ‘The Dolls’ Tea Party’ and ‘Everything is One Big Christmas Tree’. The latter, hilariously, even has its entire lyric repeated in a high-camp German chorus. They are fun, but the appeal is limited, and the acoustic instrumentation, somewhat inevitably when xylophones and glockenspiels are involved, makes them seem a bit plinky plonk.

Luckily, the front half also includes two prime examples of Merritt’s genius, two songs that pull of the neat trick of somehow being endearing and thoroughly charmless at the same time. ‘I Don’t Know What To Say’ is touchingly vulnerable and drenched in surprisingly effective reverb. With its knowing devaluations of romantic clich├ęs, it could have sat comfortably on ’69 Love Songs’. Even better is ‘You Must Be Out of Your Mind’ (followed in the chorus by the brilliantly chastising, patronising word ‘son’). As other reviewers have already noted, it features one of Merritt’s great lyrics in ‘I want you crawling back to me, down on your knees, yeah/Like an appendectomy, sans anasthaesia’.

The best songs here seem to be the most laconic – ‘Walk A Lonely Road’, ‘Better Things’, the accordion-laden ‘From a Sinking Boat’ and Shirley Simms’ wilting vocal on ‘Always Already Gone’ certainly stand out. Merritt’s attempts to balance these with jauntier moments seem to fall flat. ‘The Dada Polka’ irritatingly and inescapably reminds me of Boney M. Wryly amusing though the lyric is, the mock-baroque stylings of ‘Seduced and Abandoned’ have been repeated ad nauseam by Merritt now.

‘Realism’ is a continuation of Merritt’s dogged, largely unchanging path. He sings of ‘real’ rather than ‘absurd’ birds, accompanying his vocals with cheesy sampled birdsong. This album dependably overflows with lyrical and musical conceits. The most radical thing for him to do now would be to record something completely sincere.