Magnetic Fields' third Nonesuch disc, Realism, is the flipside to the industrial pop of Distortion, the quartet's brilliant 2008 homage to, of all things, the clangorous sound of the Jesus and Mary Chain. While Distortion was recorded quickly and noisily in the stairwells and rooms of the New York City apartment building to which singer-songwriter-bandleader Stephen Merritt was about to bid adieu for California, Realism was cut in the distortion-free environs of a Los Angeles studio, and its sound is as pristine as a plein-air painting. There are no drum kits to be heard, and the fascinatingly varied instrumentation - guitars, accordions, violins, cellos, tablas, banjos, tuba, even a smattering of mellifluous falling leaves - did not need to be plugged in. And, as with Distortion, the album credits emphasize: No Synths.
With tongue only slightly in cheek, Merritt has taken to declaring Realism his "folk" album. To get the point across, there is an upbeat, sing-along number early in the set called "We Are Having a Hootenany." Merritt's inspirations, however, were the orchestrated, mostly British folk of the late sixties/early seventies--which owe as much to sixties psychedelia as to traditional music--and the work of Judy Collins, who stretched the boundaries of "folk" with the chamber-pop arrangements of such albums as In My Life and Wildflowers.
Like Collins, Merritt favors variety and theatricality. She skipped from Jacques Brel to the Beatles; he goes from the trippy, toy-box melodies of "The Dolls' Tea Party" and "Painted Flower" to the foot-stomping rhythms of "The Dada Polka" (for which one only has to get up and "do something"). There's even a deceptively festive holiday number, "Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree," featuring a lusty chorus sung in German -- Kurt Weill in a holiday mood. In content, Merritt's songs veer between longing and loneliness, desire and dismissal, romance and revenge. Reality is as distorted as ever, and the characters who populate his songs are never just plain folk. As Jon Pareles of the New York Times put it in a review of Magnetic Fields' 2008 Town Hall concert, Merritt's songs are "elegantly phrased, understatedly sardonic tales of disillusionment. The loftier the dreams, the greater the letdown, an insight he plays for both chuckles and heartache."
Along with his long-time band-mates Sam Davol, Claudia Gonson and John Woo, Merritt is joined again by vocalist Shirley Simms, (whose plaintive tone on Distortion lent poignancy to the murderous fantasy of "California Girls" and the erotic musings in "The Nun's Litany") and accordionist Daniel Handler (a/k/a novelist Lemony Snicket, with whom Merritt created the Gothic Archies' faux children's disc, The Tragic Treasury). Also on board: horn player Johnny Blood and violinist Ida Pearle, familiar to fans of Magnetic Fields' earlier, independently released work.