26 January 2010

The Magnetic Fields: "Realism"

For anyone else who fell in love with “Distortion” (15 January 2008), this years’ follow-up by The Magnet Fields may actually throw you through a loop, but these are the kind of albums I like: the unexpected. “Realism” (26 January 2010) is devoid of synthetic sounds, electric guitars (other than in one song), or noise pop in a traditional sense. This album is a jamboree of acoustic instruments creating an impregnable wall of sound. And if that does not catch you off guard, the chorus of the first track on the album, “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” will: “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 your mind, son… You must be out of your mind.” And using that quote as the framing concept of the album, this isn’t a press of rewind (or reset), but rather using everything that Stephin Merritt (creative director, songwriter) has learnt, a few new tricks, and a few strong hooks that are hauntingly beautiful.

Essentially a folk-pop album, it may very well be a study in what noise pop techniques would sound like devoid of feed back, compressed sounds, or, well, out of control noise. What really shines through on this album, more than any other album by The Magnetic Fields, is the actual craftsmanship. What makes this last installment the magnum opus of the “no synth” trilogy that the album is part of (along side “i” (4 May 2004) and “Distortion”) is how focused and emotive it is. Merritt, whose songwriting talent knows no boundaries, has really hit on something on this album that is really powerful. Furthermore, to counterbalance the seriousness of the some of the songs, Merritt cleverly intercedes with moments of camp; like in “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree,” he sings, “Why sit in your dark and lonely room? Must your every word be sincere? Here’s a vial of laughing gas perfume, see that people smile when you’re near…” And yet in that camp, there is a sense of cutting reality, a humorous critique that is completed with the following line: “If they don’t like you, screw them.”

As opposed to the word “distorted,” “realism” implies a look at reality as how it really appears, without the spin, which may be a clue to why Merritt abandoned the distortions in sound. And one recurring realism, one reality that we often wish to forget, is just how isolated and lonely we all are. This is most apparent in “Walk a Lonely Road.” A disconsolate song which sports the words “Walk a lonely road with me, I will walk with you, half as lonely we will be when we walk as two.” But there it is, even when walking with someone else we are only “half as lonely,” but never completely consoled or part of something greater than we are. And there again is another reason this is the magnum opus: it holds that ole looking glass to your face and you have to accept a reality that you otherwise might feel too uncomfortable to confront. But set to the soothing acoustic music, it allows you to sit back and enjoy the moment while allowing yourself to slip into introspection without the doom and gloom.

Whether seduced by “a grin” and abandoned “to weep” (“Seduced and Abandoned”) or realizing that “I tried hard to keep you” (“Always Already Gone”), these are songs of vast introspection and loneliness. And where the word “son” may have seemed out of sorts in “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” it just may be that Merritt is passing on his experiences to someone younger, more naïve, and about to follow the same patterns. What Merritt has created is a soundtrack to those memories we would rather forget, but are forced to remember and actually enjoy. Inevitably, this kind of retrospection is something we will all do someday. On that note, it is time to see the genius of the final track. The album closes with “From a Sinking Boat” – which when you think about it, it is the perfect title for a closing song on an album full of songs about loneliness and isolation. “If I could walk, I’d walk away, but I haven’t slept since yesterday. The ink is sinking, the page is blurred, and I can’t read a single word. But I know I love you, know what I wrote, my last words to you from a singing boat.”

Track Listing:
1. You Must Be Out of Your Mind
2. Interlude
3. We Are Having a Hootenanny
4. I Don’t Know What to Say
5. The Doll’s Tea Party
6. Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree
7. Walk a Lonely Road
8. Always Already Gone
9. Seduced and Abandoned
10. Better Things
11. Painted Flower
12. The Dada Polka
13. From a Sinking Boat

Keep up with The Magnetic Fields at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.

Considering the plethora of sounds this band has but forward, I think that seeing them live is something worth checking out if you can. Here are the most recently posted tour dates; see The House of Tomorrow Calendar page for more information and more dates.

4 February, Thursday: Washington, DC USA
6 February, Saturday: Montreal, QC Canada
8 February, Monday: Toronto, ON Canada
10 February, Wednesday: Boston, MA USA
11 February, Thursday: Boston, MA USA
13 February, Saturday, Brooklyn, NY USA
21 February, Sunday: Portland, OR USA
22 February, Monday: Portland, OR USA
23 February, Tuesday: Seattle, WA USA
24 February, Wednesday: Seattle, WA USA
27 February, Saturday: Oakland, CA USA
1 March, Monday: San Francisco, CA USA
2 March, Tuesday: Los Angeles, CA USA
4 March, Thursday: Milwaukee, WI USA
5 March, Friday: Bloomington, IN USA
6 March, Saturday: St. Louis, MO USA
7 March, Sunday: Chicago, IL USA
8 March, Monday: Chicago, IL USA
10 March, Wednesday: New York, NY USA
11 March, Thursday: New York, NY USA
12 March, Friday: New York, NY USA
19 March, Friday: Manchester, UK
21 March, Sunday: Leamington Spa, UK
22 March, Monday: London, UK
24 March, Wednesday: Stockholm, Sweden
25 March, Thursday: Oslo, Norway
27 March, Saturday: Berlin, Deutschland
29 March, Monday: Hamburg, Deutschland
30 March, Tuesday: Frankfurt, Deutschland
31 March, Wednesday: Amsterdam, Nederland

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