REVIEW: The Magnetic Fields - Realism


The Magnetic Fields - Realism

Release Date: January 26th, 2010
Label: Nonesuch Records


With David Berman and the Silver Jews disbanding last year, we’re running low when it comes to active music legends. I’m not talking about reunion tours but music legends that are still pumping out quality records. Some active legends that come to mind are Morrissey, Malkmus, Oldham, Coyne, Yorke, Waits, and the focus of this review, the brilliant Stephin Merritt. The guy has been putting out quality records with his band The Magnetic Fields since 1991 (Realism being the tenth studio album) and a slew of other albums with The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes. Merritt’s last release with The Magnetic Fields, Distortion, left me with a bad taste in my mouth, the album was flat and its most exciting moments seemed forced. Merritt’s genius appeared to be exhausted from the epic 69 Love Songs and worthy follow up, i. Realism isn’t 69 Love Songs, not much can be, but Realism proves that Merritt’s bold voice and emotionally confusing melodies can still deliver a satisfying listen.

After a few spins, I remained astonished how timeless the music felt. Realism could have been written and recorded in any decade 60’s on. This is one part due to The Magnetic Fields returning to a folk sensibility and one part being the patience of the record. A slowly plucked guitar can waddle around for a while and when Merritt decides the time is right, a small piano noise strategically comes creeping in. I’ve always been attracted to the band because of their playfulness with time, but this might be their most successful use of such a technique. Most current music feels incredibly rushed, trying to rush to the hook or next layer of unnecessary sound.

The songs themselves vary in impact and scope, some downright masterpieces…others are knee slapping, dare I use a song title, hootenannies. There are three tracks that stand out as previously stated masterpieces. The opening track “You Must Be Out Of You Mind” is a Magnetic Field’s fan dream track. It feels like a lost 69 Love Songs track that left me grinning after my ears experienced Merritt’s playful take on regret/life/time. If you’re new to The Magnetic Fields, it’s important to point out the beauty in Merrit’s lyrics is the depth of simplicity. Most would think that is a contradictory statement, but Merritt uses the simplest approach to explore hard to crack/wide ranging themes (love, life, art). Example from the opening track: “If you think you can leave the past behind…you must be out of your mind. If you think you can simply press rewind, you must be out of you mind, son, you must be out of you mind.” Simple, but thought provoking. The genius, however, is not in those lines, but the lines that follow. Merritt has established an examination of a broad theme and as displayed in the line above, does so in a simplistic approach. What makes him a lyrical legend is following up simplicity (that which started the listeners thinking) with a powerful lyric that peels away at the theme. “You want what you turned off…turned on.” That line is one for the books. We’ve all thought about life and had that moment where we wish we could go back…but I’ve never heard it so accurately stated in lyrical form.

“Walk A Lonely Road” is another stand out track, sounding oddly Velvet Undergoudish with a fluttering of instruments coming and going with perfect synchronization. Merritt and Claudia Gonson’s voices work the best together they have in years. Gonson has had the tough job of competing with Merritt’s unmistakable and demanding voice, but on Realism and tracks like this specifically, she holds her own.

I very rarely find my two favorite tracks on an album to be the opener and closer, but this is the case with Realism. “From A Sinking Boat” does something that gets me every time. I love when a song can be tempered and evoke incredible emotions. If your hazy on what I’m talking about, this is the song to check out. There are no grandiose surprises, but the result of a bunch of little pieces being perfectly placed results in one of the best tracks I’ve heard in the last few years.

There are only a few complaints to be made about Realism. The problem, and it’s a good one to have, is that due to the major accomplishments of a few tracks, the more playful ones seem a bit out of place. “The Dolls’ Tea Party” and “We Are Having A Hootenanny” are fine songs, but with the bar set so high with the opener, lighter tracks keep this from being an instant classic. Another complaint, and the it’s really unfair, is that Realism will inevitably be compared to The Magnetic Fields’ past works. It’s not as brilliant as 69 Love Songs or as playful as Holiday, but it’s safely my third favorite release from the band…a statement, considering they have been making albums since 1991, that should be taken as a huge compliment. We’ve seen the story over and over in music. Amazing band explodes with three to four amazing albums only to have the musical climate collapse change and release after release they gently fade into mediocrity. Realism proves that the band is as wonderful as ever and the scope of Merritt’s legend has yet to be defined.


  1. Interesting, I listen to Distortion a lot & enjoy it, but your review is the most positive one for this release I've read.

  2. I’ve liked your review but I am not as enthusiastic as you are with this album. I’m agree with the lyric part, no doubt about it, but there’s something wrong with the music that I can’t take it easily, maybe I just need to give it more listenings (that’s for sure, I’ve only heard it twice). My point here is that it sounds to me like if Merrit wanted to do a folk album that actually doesn’t sound like real folk for so long, and it seems to me like he’s tried to tie up himself o his music in this kind of folk/non-folk songs, i’m just a little bit confused with the sound... I do not know, I need to listen the album more times!
    I completely agree with you -a new album by MF is never into mediocrity, we can always count on his music!

  3. Finally a positive response. Sometimes I feel others do not know what TMF is all about. I went to their concert yesterday. Despite colds colliding with songs like The dolls tea party and hootenannny, the band was great.Distortion is a great album, Realism very,very good. Playing an album live has a huge impact on understanding a band's intention. Considering they were suppose to make a double album out of it each song belongs in its own "mer(r)it(t)"