Do you like acoustic guitars, soft-spoken vocals, baroque stylings and lilting melodies? Then listen to Fleet Foxes. If you ever get sick of that and you are looking for a cheap indie folk imitation, then you could try “Realism,” the newest album by The Magnetic Fields.
Folk music is a tricky thing. It’s always hard to balance the country energy with the pastoral ballad with the singer-songwriter tendency for verbosity. Indie acts like Bon Iver and Iron and Wine ignore their country roots and play at eloquence. The Dodos drum up more energy, and Bright Eyes has progressively forsaken the soft song for the country drawl. It’s hard to know whether Stephin Merritt, the main creative force behind The Magnetic Fields, is unaware of this continuum or if he just chooses to ignore it; he has always tried to cram as much of these styles into one album as possible, and “Realism” is no exception. In fact, it is the supreme example of this chock-full-of-folk approach because the album is almost entirely acoustic (only one track has an electric guitar).
There is some great guitar picking on the album, some slow introspective lyrics, and plenty of up-tempo country-esque fun (sing-alongs and fiddles included). This formula, which The Magnetic Fields have stuck to over the past four albums since the instant classic “69 Love Songs,” still has plenty of life in it. It’s just too bad that Merritt had no interest tapping any of that.
To say that “Realism” is lacking passion is not accurate: It is devoid of emotion. I must admit that I was confused when I first listened to the album. Was there some inside joke that I was missing? I like atonal singers, as long as they express emotion some other way; I have no problem with those who hide their small ranges with brilliant lyrics. That isn’t the problem here. Both Merritt and Claudia Gonson, the other lead vocalist, have decent enough voices, but they both sing with so little feeling that I can’t help but believe that they think there is some element of coolness in being bored. You know what happens when the singer is bored? The listener is bored.
It’s sad that no one ever told the band that their album was boring. Admittedly, they were going for what Merritt described as his “folk album,” so maybe he thought that was equivalent to mind-numbing banality.
It is possible to be both reserved and cool; it’s called sexy. Whispers are seductive and sexy, slow jazz is smooth and sexy, and French art films are, well, pretty damn sexy. Even really slow folk can be sexy (see Alexi Murdoch). Stephin Merritt is not sexy—this time around. Stephen is sexy in 69 Love Songs (see: “Underwear”).
This is not to say that this album is absolutely terrible. Some songs, “Interlude” especially, sound like old English ballads, and that’s at least interesting stylistically. And the opening track, “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” is actually quite beautiful. Most of the songs on the album are inoffensive, if boring. But then there is “We Are Having a Hootenanny.” It sounds like what I imagine Eastern European rockabilly bands sound like. The emotionlessness of this album is there in spades, but there is something more. I actually can’t stop listening it’s so bad. If you don’t buy the album (and I would recommend that you don’t), I would at least give this song a listen on Youtube.