Album: The Magnetic Fields, Realism (Nonesuch)
Dear listener, if you're expecting something simple and cheery...
Sunday 24 January 2010
Magnetic Fields is the primary vehicle for the preposterously prolific muse of Stephin Merritt.
In 19 years he's released 19 albums under various guises and not one of them, if you'll pardon the excruciating pun, without merit.
If you've struggled to keep up with the Bostonian singer-songwriter's bewildering output, and failed to catch 2008's electric-based Distortion (to which Realism is an acoustic companion piece), it barely matters. Within 30 seconds of the chiming opening of "You Must Be Out of Your Mind", he's delivered the couplet "I want you on your knees to me/ Like an appendectomy sans anaesthaesia", and you're straight back into Merritt-world.
The mismatch between the benign beauty of the music and the offhand harshness of the lyrics (buried, as so often is the case, in the harmonics) is something of a Merritt hallmark, and in this instance suggests an alternate universe in which the Byrds were fronted by Frank Zappa.
Amplification and abrasiveness are banished, and instead sounds such as the harpsichord, the flugelhorn and the children's music box reign. "Seduced and Abandoned" has the courtly 18th-century feel of Sparks circa Indiscreet, while "I Don't Know What to Say" suggests the Beach Boys on some imagined interim album between Pet Sounds and Smile.
If Merritt is forever profoundly pessimistic about love, his songs are, paradoxically, oddly romantic regardless. It's as though his pessimism derives only from his own high expectations. Cutting social commentary, however, is never far from the surface: "The Doll's Tea Party" reads like an acerbic satire on the determined frivolity of a certain type of gay man (Merritt, of course, being a gay man himself).
Pleasingly, Merritt may now have gained a whole new audience among macabre-minded children via the back door due to his mutual love-in with author Lemony Snicket, who appears on accordion and backing vocals here under his real name of Daniel Handler, with Merritt in return recording a song for each new Snicket audiobook. The prospect of thousands of pre-teens being exposed to Merritt's unique worldview would be a seriously fortunate event.
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