Sometimes listening to a songwriter as incredibly talented as Stephin Merritt toss off lines like "I always say I love you when I mean turn out the light, and I say let's run away when I just mean stay the night" makes you think, "...that is just unfair. Why can't I come up with shit like that!" Eleven years after singing this on 69 Love Songs' I Think I Need a New Heart, Merritt's witticisms are still well in tact on Realism, The Magnetic Fields' tenth full length album, and the conclusion of the band's so-called "no-synth trilogy." The first thing that will catch the listener's ear is just how folk this thing is. The string dominated production (we're talking guitars, banjos, ukeleles, violins, harps, zithers...) manages to sound staggering and yet intimate at the same time, with Merritt's bittersweet, and often times flatly detached, vocals leading the way.
Referred to by Merritt himself as his "folk album," Realism indeed serves as quite the opposite to 2008's aptly named slab of noise pop, Distortion. You Must Be Out of Your Mind kicks things off with an incredibly detailed arrangement topped off with Merritt's dry baritone and sardonic lyrics ("You want to kindle that old flame, I don't remember your real name" is particularly harsh). It sets the mood perfectly, which is picked up on immediately with the hilariously sarcastic We Are Having a Hootenanny. Little subtleties like the stressed s's so strongly express laughing at the absurdity all that you can't help but laugh. The same applies to The Dolls' Tea Party, which sounds exactly as the title suggests, surprisingly authentic and mockingly kitschy at the same time, and Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree, rife with the kind of cheer that only a truly bitter cynic could bring.
Despite the backhanded exuberance abound on Realism, there are a great deal of genuine moments as well. I Don't Know What to Say and Walk a Lonely Road both convey different brands of sincere sadness.The like-minded Always Already Gone is a bit more specific, going over being left behind in a relationship. This song in particular brings to mind how Bill Murray once described Wes Anderson's film Rushmore, as struggling to "retain civility and kindness in the face of extraordinary pain."
As Realism trudges on, more and more feelings of hopelessness are tossed onto the heap. Better Things and Painted Flower, whether intended as over-the-top self parody or not, lack the mordant humor throughout Realism, particularly the snickers you can almost hear in earlier mentioned tracks Tea Party and Christmas Tree, or the impeccably titled The Dada Polka. The album closes on a similarly lonely note with From a Sinking Boat, complete with a trailing off piano and desolate cello. Through all thirteen tracks, the instrumentation remains tight and top notch, not only representing each song handsomely but feeling unified as well, coming across as textbook folk without sounding campish.
There is much beauty on Realism, and a lot of the sardonic wit that Merritt is known for, as well as his knack for expressing difficult, complex emotions with ridiculous ease. Overall, the album touches on a certain bittersweet type of sadness, one that embraces loneliness as well as the humor found therein. A great, great album for lonely losers.