Stephin Merritt is an expert at writing songs that work in a timeless pop song way while even highlighting the slipperiness of the song as a means of communication.
The title of the Magnetic Fields’ ninth album, Realism, is, of course, a trap. As a songwriter, singer, and musician, Stephin Merritt has never pretended to deliver Truth in song. Certainly you can listen to his songs the way most people naturally listen to music: react to the sentiment of the lyrics and ‘feel’ the song, but the song is always asking you questions too. The song may be crying with you, but it may be laughing at you too. Realism is a reminder that pop music is about perceived meaning, about using song-forms as vessels of perception.
One rather beautiful song is titled “I Don’t Know What to Say”. On the one hand it’s an expression of the muteness we experience in the face of love. On the other, it’s a catalogue of the typical things a songwriter might say in a song about love. Merritt sings, in typically wry fashion, “I could say I want you / that would be a bore / maybe in a font you haven’t seen before." Is the meaning in songs all about appearances, then, a matter of changing the font? The song fades out with Merritt still itemizing, indicating the way pop songs, and the exercise of trying to find the right words (window dressing), continue for eternity, an infinity of ciphers.
Merritt is an expert at writing songs that work in a timeless pop-song way while simultaneously drawing attention to the form itself, even highlighting the slipperiness of the song as a means of communication. Realism contains a few exquisite ‘sad songs’, about departure and connection, that also comment on the nature of such songs: “Walk a Lonely Road”, “Always Already Gone”, “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”. “Always Already Gone” takes the popular-song notion of being ‘already gone’ (see Wikipedia entires on songs by the Eagles, Sugarland, Kelly Clarkson, Melanie C, and Powderfinger) both metaphorically and literally. In the process, it is the making of life into a dream and a dream into life, the unwriting of a story. Shirley Simms sings, “you leave me with only a story to tell / but at the beginning our story is done / because you were always / always already gone."
On “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”, the album-opener, brilliantly turns a love song into a commentary on the way names create ‘meaning’, the way we think giving something a new name changes its essence. “You call it sunset / now it’s dawn." That makes it a love song with political implications. Purposely or not, the song recalls the myriad ways people in power try to re-frame unsavory events by talking about them differently. Alas, it’s to no avail: “If you think you can leave the past behind / you must be out of your mind." The song has Merritt on lead vocals, but the way others are singing along gives his voice a communal feeling that’s also somehow robotic-sounding, an evocation of folk-music notions of community that can’t help but bring up the conformity in the same.
Merritt has described Realism as his folk album, which is of course true and not true. Instrumentally the music is similar to the group’s last album Distortion, minus the distortion, or to i, which also had no electric instruments. In other words, it’s a rich array of piano, cello, violin, banjo, accordion, horns and hand percussion. The forms the songs take might be folk-music, but not in the ‘60s way. Perhaps the 1860s, or earlier, I don’t know, on songs like “The Dolls’ Tea Party” (think early America, still in Britain’s thrall), “The Dada Polka” (a polka, obviously), “We Are Having a Hootenanny Now” (a hootenanny, maybe), and “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” (German, if you trust the part of the song sung in German). These songs, the most ‘folk’ in the sense of seeming to follow a specific country’s musical tradition, also are the most playfully tricky. “We Are Having a Hootenanny Now” welcomes us in for a party which seems more likely to be a Scientology-style brainwashing. “The Dolls’ Tea Party”, the one song sung by Claudia Gonson, is an old-fashioned gossip party that may be modern-day, maybe even virtual; the use of the word “twitter” seems key, even as a verb. “The Dada Polka” offers not a challenge to be rebellious so much as to be “true”, begging the question of what “true” means.
Throughout the album are interesting references to surfaces and what they represent, be it the “one-ply negligee” of “Seduced and Abandoned” or the “Painted Flower” (yes, a flower made of paint) which narrates the song of the same name. One endlessly fascinating, and particularly beautiful, song in that vein is “Better Things”, where a mermaid proclaims that she’s heard “the singing of real birds / not those absurd birds / that simply everybody’s heard." Even fantasy creatures care about real-ness in music, and being different from everyone else.
Realism’s final song, “From a Sinking Boat” (a seeming companion to the Gothic Archies’ “Shipwrecked”) is an again gorgeous, sullen ballad from the perspective of someone who tells us he’s on a boat that’s sinking. How we react to his words is based on us knowing he’s on a sinking boat, and he knows it: “know that I love you / know that I wrote my last words to you / from a sinking boat”. Which of those is more important to him? The song is beautiful and tragic, and at the same time keeps in the air that question of framing, how the meaning of words relates to context. Which is more important, love or its surroundings?