For years, Stephin Merritt has been nudging The Magnetic Fields further and further into baroque territory. This effort has been so natural and seamless it’s becoming impossible to conceive of the band as the mod ’90s synth outfit that contributed songs to “Pete and Pete” episodes. And considering Merritt’s ability to string his songwriting faculty across eras and genres, it should appall nobody that ole’ Mr. Ornery turned the clocks back even further with Realism, presenting a sound so quaint and antiquated it makes baroque sound as modern as a Moog synthesizer.

Magnetic Fields

Realism
Nonesuch

Realism is a Renaissance fair of an album, beaming with lutes, flutes, harps, tambourines and an aww-shucks-I’ve-got-bubonic-plague innocence that is sure to awaken the chain-mail smith in all of us. Like any music to which one should slay a dragon, court a maiden or enter a jousting tournament, Realism is far too cloying and structurally simple for the jaded 21st-Century palate. It’s polite and endearing, but it’s a snoozer.

Over the course of the album, Merritt deftly plays all the usual suspects: He’s the balladeer on “Walk A Lonely Road”; the jester on “I Don’t Know What To Say”; and the snake-oil salesmen hawking a bill of goods and services on “We Are Having A Hootenanny” (he and his assistants implore audiences to “come and take our personality quiz”). But somewhere in the creative process his method acting went too far, and even his inner tunesmith began conforming to the aesthetic of the songs’ arrangements.

Whereas Merritt once ornamented his expected pop sensibilities with instruments native to an orchestra hall, he now seems to be writing songs specifically suited to his 14th-Century troubadour instrumental palette. The result is a collection largely full of melodies so sweet even Merritt’s bass growl can’t deflate them. And when he’s accompanied by sirens Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms, the affair reaches helium heights.

The Renaissance mold is broken on occasion, mostly to allow for Merritt to pay homage to his disparate influences. His affinity for show tunes surfaces on “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree,” which sounds so much like a Rogers & Hammerstein number it’s easy to imagine Maria teaching it to the von Trapp children (and it even has a verse in German). Meanwhile, “We Are Having A Hootenanny” reeks of Appalachian folk, heavily borrowing the structure and rhythmic cadence of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain.”

Only opener “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind” comes across as a “serious” writing effort, bringing Merritt’s vintage triumphant-yet-melancholic sense of song together with his frank, fatalistic humor (“I want you crawling back to me / down on your knees, yeah / Like an appendectomy / sans anesthesia”). Elsewhere, tracks like “Always Already Gone” and “From a Sinking Boat” offer no depth or sophistication and fail to deliver the simple memorability Merritt intended of them. (After all, he calls this his “folk” album.)

With 10 tracks in the two-minute range and the remaining three in the three-minute range, Realism is merely a record of slight, pleasant ditties. It’s not an outright failure, but its lack of melodic achievement certainly makes it an orphan in The Magnetic Fields’ catalog. Supposedly, Merritt wanted to use the titles “True” and “False” for Realism and 2008’s Distortion, respectively, but was unable to decide which was which. Though Realism dutifully eschews amplification, its artificial sweetness makes it a poor candidate to represent any sort of musical truth.

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