The Magnetic Fields - "Everything is One Big Christmas Tree" (Realism)
Like Distortion, Stephin Merritt and Co.’s last outing as The Magnetic Fields, Realism is sonically defined by a unifying texture: whereas the former album buried Merritt’s still-rather-polished songs underneath layers of noise and grime, this one deploys the richest acoustic arrangements of the band’s career, with every instrument and every note audible with perfect clarity. As was the case with Distortion, however, it’s not the governing conceit that makes or breaks the album, but the songs themselves. The fact that Merritt feels compelled to come up with defining parameters for his albums (distortion, clarity, or the songs beginning with the letter ‘I’ of i) seem to suggest both boredom and flippancy: the theme doesn’t really matter. This in itself would hardly be enough to sink Realism, but the fact that an equal flippancy and tossed-off feel marks most of the songwriting on the album certainly is.
While not entirely uniform in tone or songwriting style, Realism might most aptly be called Merritt’s “operetta” album: while there are some moments that evoke what might be called the “classic” Magnetic Fields sound (especially opener “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”), much of the material here attests more to Merritt’s fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan than to 20th Century pop. Unfortunately this approach seems to drive the songs in a superficial and slight direction, as both music and lyrics veer so strongly to the light and frilly that little emotional impact surfaces. Merritt’s work has always played on the tension between slightness, superficiality and pathos: he can be fun and lighthearted, but at his best brings out a surprising degree of pathos where we wouldn’t expect it (in cliché, stock personae, etc). This tension is largely lacking here; there’s very little emotional weight anywhere on the album and we’re left with pleasant, but seemingly written-on-autopilot love songs, half-jokes that feel almost insulting in their superficiality (“We are Having a Hootenany”, “The Dolls’ Tea Party,” “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree”) and seem to invite us to skip over them after a single listen. Most of Realism sounds like tossed-off throwaway material, and it’s hard to believe that the man who came up with a consistent triple album like 69 Love Songs has trouble filling up the brief running time of 33 minutes.
There’s rarely any cleverness here, and the biting tone of Distortion’s highlights (“California Girls,” “The Nun’s Litany”) is completely absent. Granted, Realism opts for a sweeter and more romantic tone, which, when it connects, only serves to highlight the remainder’s blandness. Glimpses of what a more satifisfying Magnetic Fields album might look like at this point come in “Walk A Lonely Road” and “Better Things,” the only moments at which Merritt pulls off the trick of imbuing cliché (in the first case) or fairy-tale frillyness (in the latter, whose longing refrain is one of Merrit’s finest moments ever) with deep pathos. These two tracks, and the latter especially, manage to cut through the often crippling lightness and routine songwriting that Merritt has perhaps inevitably settled into. Both of these elements are essential to the tone of his best work—his songs succeed when they balance on the knife-edge of banality and pathos, and when they succeed in making formula redeem itself and regain a kind of innocent power.
For most of Realism, unfortunately, Merritt fails to even remotely strike this balance, abandoning any emotional power as he falls victim his penchant for formula and banality. The sad clown becomes a mere clown, and not a very funny one at that.