Originally meant to be a sonic opposition to 2008’s loud and clangorous Distortion, Realism, the tenth album by Stephen Merritt’s Magnetic Fields, re-creates a certain moment in the history of folk music, but a moment that’s not quite on the same timeline as the moment that occurred here on Earth. Best to place it in 1969, but alter reality by slinging a yellow hue onto everything, a good dollop of lemon glaze on the camera. Instead of Nixon in the White House, put Frank Zappa, and instead of us landing on the Moon, have the Moon land on us. Now we have the reality where Realism exists. To say the album’s orchestrations are eclectic is akin to saying Zappa’s orchestrations were eclectic. “Bouzoukis, banjos, cellos, violins, accordions, tubas, tablas, even a smattering of mellifluous falling leaves” are among the instruments providing a unique soundscape. The album starts off esoteric and only becomes more peculiar, but though it may sound different or strange, especially to a novice listener, Realism maintains a level of calm through Merritt’s majestic bass voice, jocular lyrics, and well-constructed melodies.
Providing some orchestral continuity is the autoharp, the zither’s bastard cousin. Without drums, the effect is to bring the listener back in time much further, into the drawing rooms of the seventeenth century, where proper ladies sat, had tea, and listened to the harpsichord. This is first felt on “We Are Having a Hootenanny,” but more fully manifests itself during “The Doll’s Tea Party.” Vocalist Shirley Simms sings “At the doll’s tea party, we twitter along. We prattle and tattle on whose done whom wrong. On who’s in and who’s out, and who’s best at mahjong. Oh, and where to buy fabulous things for a song.” But even considering the feel seven minutes before was very modern, very 2010, Merritt’s deep voice intoning, “I no longer drink enough to think you’re witty,” Realism doesn’t feel haphazard or erratic as many attempts at eclecticism can. It feels like an effortlessly designed setpiece: an album with a very specific purpose executed with precision.
What makes Realism work is it is not a deliberate attempt to be weird, but simply the songs Stephen Merritt wanted to record the way he wanted to record them. Merritt cites Judy Henske as a prime source for _Realism_’s eclectic orchestrations, and he is correct in doing so. Henske’s ’69 release with Jerry Yester, Farewell Aldebaran, on Zappa’s Straight Records label is a clear historical touchstone for Realism. But _Realism_’s incorporation of not just styles since 1969, but also drawing from sounds and moods much further back in history, and turning a total deaf ear to what we might call rock music, places it in an influence timeline all its own. All that said, it is also delightful half-hour of two and three minute pop songs, each put together like a clock, each, like much of Merritt’s output, destined for playlists, iPods, and iPads everywhere.