Magnetic Fields’ unfinished, unpolished sound has long been a part of their charm. But it’s increasingly becoming a source of frustration, too. Frontman Stephin Merritt, this generation’s (droller and dourer) Cole Porter, is the cleverest rhymesmith working outside of hip-hop, with an enviable aptitude for penning catchy melodies. But, like Steven Soderbergh, his ambitions are too epic; he spreads himself so thin across side projects—other groups, soundtracks, musical theater—that the work of his flagship band noticeably suffers. Realism is the band’s latest concept album united by a loose and (increasingly) arbitrary theme: love songs, the letter I, the use of distortion. Here, though, it’s used ironically, I think: Many of the album’s songs have little to do with anything we might associate with such a tag, and instead revel in hootenannies, magical moon beams, Christmas trees and Santy Claus, dolls’ tea parties and the like.
More accurately, the theme here is no theme (“acoustic instruments” doesn’t count as an overarching subject); the album is a hodgepodge of what sound like songs that the band intentionally kept off 69 Love Songs, their hitherto, now decade-old magnum opus. (In the case of the opening track, “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” it would have been in error; the ghost of Ira Gershwin will smile when it hears Merritt make “knees, yeah” rhyme with “anesthesia,” even if the syllable count is uneven.) In other words, Merritt isn’t getting better with age: he’s reverting, and not always particularly well, though it’s a relief that the distortion that made the last album unlistenable was a one-off gimmick. (This album was envisioned as the yin to Distortion‘s yang. “I initially wanted them to be called ‘True’ and ‘False,'” Merritt said. “But I couldn’t decide which I wanted to be called ‘True’ and which I wanted to be called ‘False.'”) A handful of songs on Realism have the D.I.Y. homespun charm of a gang of kids playing with the old instruments (autoharp!) they found in grandpa’s attic. “We Are Having a Hootenany”—whose title is hilariously M.L.A. style, free of any contractions or colloquial spellings—and “The Dada Polka,” with its cute-punk refrain and Velvet Underground off-key-noise solo, evoke the boy-girl goodtimes of The Vaselines. But their carousing energy isn’t enough to support the album.
Not every song on 69 Love Songs is a knockout, but the deep album cuts serve as mortar between the would-be singles. Together, they form a cohesive (masterful!) whole. Realism—with a handful of notable exceptions, like the aforementioned tracks, or the very Pet Sounds-y “I Don’t Know What to Say,” which fades out after the unrhymed line “I could try to shove you off the nearest cliff”—sounds like little but the filler, like a disc of vaulted tracks included in a career-spanning box set: intriguing for completists, maybe, but less so for casual fans, and not at all for anyone else. Plodding tunes with half-considered arrangements like “Walk a Lonely Road,” “Always Already Gone,” “Seduced and Abandoned,” “Better Things,” and “Painted Flower”—basically, half of Side A and most of Side B—might be forgiven, even appreciated, if they were one of 69. But it’s a lot harder when they’re one of 13.