With his droll, sombre urbanity, the Magnetic Fields' songwriter Stephin Merritt long since confirmed his position as the combined Coward and Sondheim of his era – though to my knowledge, neither of those earlier masters ever attempted writing in the more primitive, bucolic mode of folk music, as Merritt does on Realism.
With its acoustic instrumental palette and investigations of genre conventions, Realism is in stark contrast to the heavily distorted guitar pop of 2008's Distortion, though Merritt has claimed he always thought of the two albums as a linked pair, and considered titling them "True" and "False", a plan ultimately foiled by his inability to decide which title f itted which album. One presumes Realism, with its reliance on organic, untreated acoustic sounds, was originally to be "True", until Merritt's habitual tendency to examine received opinions led him to question the supposed purity of traditional folk idioms. What, after all, is "We Are Having a Hootenanny", if not a gloss on the absurdist sincerity of folk language, the supposed party proclaimed with bureaucratic joylessness, despite the frisky alliance of accordion, fiddle and ukulele?
Realism, apparently influenced by Joshua Rifkin's chamber-folk arrangements for Judy Collins, employs cello and violin alongside the more rustic tones of banjo, ukulele, harmonium, xylophone, autoharp and what sounds like hammer dulcimer, resulting in homely but straight-laced textures akin to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra on tracks such as "Better Things" and "Interlude". Elsewhere, the use of zob-stick (rattling bottle-tops nailed to a piece of wood) on "The Dada Polka" and the bathetic pairing of toy piano and tuba on "The Dolls' Tea Party" underline the light-heartedness of the enterprise, despite Merritt's characteristic lyrical sleights of hand.
As often before, love furnishes his prevailing muse through most of Realism, albeit tempered by his usual barbed wordplay. The opener "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" is a typically articulate song of disaffection, Merritt's baritone delivering with relish such elegantly-turned locutions as "I want you crawling back to me down on your knees, yeah/ Like an appendectomy sans anaesthesia". But there are more direct, sincere expressions of affection here crying out for covers, most notably the poignant "Always Already Gone" and the glum but genuinely moving closer, "From a Sinking Boat", whose protagonist submerges wanting his beloved to "know that I love you, and know that I wrote my last words to you while I was sinking". From love-child's cradle to watery grave, Realism features tragedy too good to be true.
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