The Magnetic Fields: Realism (Nonesuch) 

The Magnetic Fields bandleader Stephin Merritt has always been invested in gimmickry and guiding concepts, and Realism is being billed as the group's "folk album."

To review a Magnetic Fields album feels almost like a perfunctory act: Point out the brilliance of the songcraft and lyrical bon mots; call attention to the central joke (like, if every song title starts with the letter "I"); reflect on Merritt's gleaming misanthropy; rinse; repeat.

Realism is no different, but The Magnetic Fields remain one of our greatest musical treasures, and to welcome a new release from them can never be perfunctory. It's always an occasion.

As on everything since 69 Love Songs, the band jumps styles and genres from song to song. "The Dada Polka" is a fantastic slice of 1960s folk-pop; "Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree" is Merritt via volkslieder; "Walk a Lonely Road" is a melancholy lounge ballad.

On "The Dolls' Tea Party," Claudia Gonson sings: "We Twitter along / We prattle and tattle on who's done whom wrong / On who's in, who's out and who's best at mah jongg / And where to buy fabulous things for a song." Have the Magnetic Fields ever been so direct in their social critique? The band even disses Facebook quizzes on their mock-hoedown song, "We Are Having a Hootenanny."

Realism's a classic. It's also the final album in Merritt's "no-synth trilogy," which implies the next one might signal a return to electronics. And that's certain to be an occasion for rejoicing, too.

More by Sean Bottai


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