A blog devoted to the works of Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, The Gothic Archies, et al. This blog will feature news related to his work, as well as occasional fanboy gushes from the author. Thank you for stopping by, and may all your dreams come true.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Betrayal

I received my copy of Realism from Insound today.  I wasn't planning on listening 'til tomorrow, but how can I turn it down when it is IN MY HANDS?


So, I didn't.  And, now I'll gush.


As a whole, Realism is indicative of little other than Mr. Merritt's entire career taken as a whole.  While this gauntlet seems daunting to say the least, Realism remains wholly cohesive and brilliant throughout, thoroughly expounding upon the record's theme all the way through.  Musically and thematically, though, the record is completely reminiscent of work Mr. Merritt has produced throughout his career.


As overt analyses on the sincerity of genre, both Distortion and Realism thrive on stereotype.  Realism is rooted in the miry world of folk music, though approaches its function with its tongue firmly rooted in its cheek; the songs abuse the stereotypes that build up their preconceived genre role and work against them simultaneously.  Folk music is often supposed as sincere, and these songs are out-and-out making a mockery of that claim, but remain wholly uncondescending and oftentimes can make you laugh or cry as if they were being completely sincere.  Of course, this is what Mr. Merritt has been selling his whole career, and those accustomed to his work will find no thematic surprises on the album.  Functionality, though, is important here; one must assume that the concepts of Distortion and Realism were born in this post-i world, when people were calling that particular record autobiographical simply based on its title.  Mundane a criticism if ever there was one, Mr. Merritt has oft been found harping against the use of sincerity in music since.  I mean, this is the man who wrote 69 Love Songs - how on earth could one possibly assume he's telling us the truth?


But, of course, this is all secondary to what makes Realism so special: the music.  Quite simply, The Magnetic Fields deliver as ever they have.  Within thirty seconds of hearing "You Must Be Out of Your Mind," I was in tears.  Absolute tears.  While the record at times recalls his work on Orphan of Zhao ("Painted Flower"), The Tragic Treasury ("Everything is One Big Christmas Tree"), The Wayward Bus (the twenty-year-old "The Dada Polka"), and several others, the record never lets the experienced listener feel as if they are retreading all-too-familiar ground, and remains wholly fresh throughout.  If anything, these reminders of previous work only prove the album's diversity.  Despite its folky labeling, the record hops from sub-genre to sub-genre in its nigh thirty-minute-long runtime, feeling at times cataclysmic, heart-wrenching, and hilarious.  The sudden switch from "Interlude" to "We Are Having A Hootenanny" feels like a trick that will make this young writer laugh every time.  


In short, there is not anything I could say against this record.  The songs against which others have spoken actually seem to be some of my favorites.  Its production work is the best of Mr. Merritt's career, ousting Hyacinths & Thistles for this title, if one can choose to believe it.  Anybody who loves The Magnetic Fields or Stephin Merritt (and one can only assume you do if you are reading this) has no reason not to adore this album.  It is reminiscent of former work at times, yes, but also completely new and fresh and fun and magic and wonderful.  Listen to it on headphones and fall in love.  A song-by-song analysis is in order, I do think:


You Must Be Out of Your Mind, as aforementioned, made me cry very soon into its runtime.  The answer to the question of why this is is multilayered and personal, really, but I will touch on it.  Firstly, the production work of this album, as aforementioned, is just beautiful and I was struck by it and caught by surprise by its absolutely phenomenal beauty.  But perhaps more than that, I was reminded that this is Mr. Merritt's music.  His masterful songwriting and production is present the second this track begins.  The vocals are amazing - it sounds like Shirley Simms singing on top of two very sped-up Stephin Merritts, resulting in a vocal track like nothing Mr. Merritt has made before.  Not to mention, the line about appendectomies, which might be amongst the cleverest lyric Merritt has ever penned.


Sandwiched between two songs on entirely different spectrums than itself, Interlude is a science-fictiony ballroom waltz sort of song.  I love it a lot.  The instrumentation is more sparse than most songs on the album, but is still really beautiful, perfectly complementing Ms. Simms's absolutely gorgeous vocal delivery.  


Then, comes the sonic fun of We Are Having a Hootenanny, bound to be the album's most-discussed track, methinks.  Yes, the lyrics are jaunty and fun, but are you people listening to this on headphones?  It's beautiful!  Ms. Pearle's epic violin solo at the end is a nice period to a song so otherwise full of laughs.  Mr. Handler, as well, is of particular notice here, his accordion track being at its most memorable since "Zebra," perhaps.  In fact, its worth noting the individual instrumentation of the entire album.  While so much of Mr. Merritt's previous work is based on a synthetic Wall of Sound, a la Phil Spector, Realism, like no other Magnetic Fields album before it, feels more instrumentally compartmentalized (which sounds like a strange way to phrase it, but is entirely a good thing).  Each track features at least a pretty varied pair of (and usually many more) instruments and each track utilizes them in the best possible way, allowing each one to add its own layer to the song.


I Don't Know What To Say's abrupt ending denotes several dreary images akin to the song's theme that only intensify the agony lurking behind it.  This could well be the saddest song on the record.  While never sincere, Mr. Merritt does have an uncanny ability to put himself in the mindset of any situation, and this song functions as a heartbreaking dissertation on what it means to give up on someone.  I want to cite lyrics, but I am resisting doing so for those more patient/less fortunate than I.  Just know that you'll bawl your eyes out.


Why do so many people dislike The Dolls' Tea Party?  The instrument that sounds like a toy piano plinks along with Claudia's vocal so eloquently that I really can't imagine someone hating this song.  While one could say the lyrics are inane, this seems like the type of argument only a dotterel would make; in my mind, the dolls aren't so different from the "California Girls" from Distortion.  Seeing them from an admirer's point-of-view is a wholly rewarding experience for me.  Also: I appreciate Ms. Gonson's diction very much, as there have been those who have made fun of how I enunciate my T's in the past.  Ms. Gonson makes me slightly less insecure about it, at the very least.  


Sam Davol has always had little to prove, to be sure, but whatever he may have had is completely vanished after hearing Everything is One Big Christmas Tree.  His cello drives the song and adds a sense of immediacy whose existence changes the whole tone of the song.  The line about a fortune would not sound quite as vitriolic without it.  The jaunty German chorus still throws me for a loop, even after receiving a translation from a member of the Stephinsongs mailing list, but I love it no less for it.  Part of the fun of Mr. Merritt's music is listening to them for years and then one day, out of the blue, finding something in a song you never knew was there.  In fact, that might be my favorite part about getting a new Magnetic Fields record: the expectation of this long-lasting relationship with it.


My initial thoughts about Walk A Lonely Road were that it reminds me a lot of the Flare song "Too Old to Die Young."  I now realize that just because it is a duet featuring Shirley Simms does not mean much, and the the songs, while both incredible, are wholly dissimilar.  I must note that Mr. Merritt's voice on this track sounds absolutely beautiful.  Being so used to hearing him sing in a more affectless manner (a la the namesake for this blog) allows me room for surprise still when he does put forward a vocal character.  Here, he perfectly captures the sense of isolation and desperation about which the song speaks, and offers an indescribable foil to Ms. Simms's more quaint, innocent-sounding vocal.  And, I would be remiss not to mention Ms. Gonson once more, whose percussion shines here more than on any other track of the record.  This one made me cry as well.


Ms. Simms continue to astound on Always Already Gone, whose production work awes and astounds.  I assume Mr. Merritt is responsible for the autoharp as no other is credited with playing it, and this, along with Ms. Simms, is what makes the song.  Its echoy nature counters and captures Ms. Simms's voice and mood in such a way that it brings tears to my eyes.  Perhaps it would be easier to just point out the songs at which I didn't cry, really, but I am serious when I say that this album's production is capable of doing this to someone.


Whomever says that Mr. Merritt has no vocal range (which, really, I think that might just be himself) needs to listen closely to this record.  On Seduced and Abandoned, he proves the absurdity of this claim forthwith, sounding more like a classic folk singer than on any other song on the record.  The song also features a Merritt-centric dichotomy, inasmuch as its tuba-laden instrumentation disconnects itself from the sorrow at hand in its lyric, a "trick" to which any Magnetic Fields fan should be accustomed.  But, as ever, this dichotomy does not harm one's enjoyment of the song, instead allowing you to hear the story from an unexpected angle, letting the absolute sorrow sink in only in its conclusion.  


Better Things, I feel, is the key to the whole album, and I'm hesitant to say more than that.  While I'm not saying it's my favorite, it is perhaps the most important track here in terms of the aforementioned musical/thematical tendencies of Mr. Merritt's work and of Realism itself.


Painted Flower makes such beautiful use of that Enoch Light-esque audio-channel-switching!  Wondrous work, really.  The song functions somewhat as a duel between the cello and the bell-like sounds (about whose source instrument I'm very confused - any help would be much appreciated here), with Ms. Simms's dainty extended metaphor serving as a mediator between the two, allowing neither to overpower the other.  While the song, of course, sounds lovely on speakers, I implore you to listen to it on headphones.  Absolutely fucking revelatory.


The entire concept of The Dada Polka makes me laugh, and serves a reminder to Mr. Merritt's experimental nature.  I had heard about this song long, long ago before Realism was even a thought in my noggin, when Mr. Merritt discussed a song he'd been working on for 20+ years.  Of course, that song is this one.  But, what tickles me so much is the expectations that that statement conjures; when one says that, it is the typical assumption that the song in question is going to be some sort of over-poignant ballad sort of song.  Mr. Merritt, however, delivers a dance song, which is all-too-poignant in and of itself.  The song is too fun, and while it doesn't feel dated at all, one can see this song being sung by Ms. Susan Anway on one of those first two Magnetic Fields record.  Its start-and-stop chorus is epically danceable/singable and reminds me simultaneously of "Beach A-Boop-Boop" and "All You Ever Do Is Walk Away," though for completely different reasons.


From a Sinking Boat is a perfect ending for this record.  It's swarthy and heartbreaking and beautiful and epitomizes a lot of what I love about this record.  The last line makes me shiver and cry, which I think is a perfect farewell for The Magnetic Fields.


In short, I love this record, I love The Magnetic Fields, and I love you all.  Thank you.

9 comments:

  1. excellent review! you make stephin merritt sound like christ's second coming, except that you have evidence.

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  2. This is my favorite thing anyone has ever said ever, Anonymous. I just lol'd, and I never lol because of the internets.

    Thank you, sir or madam.

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  3. I read the post title "Betrayal" followed by "I received my copy of Realism..." and a lengthy review, and thought "uh-oh". Ha. Glad to hear you like it so much.

    As for the instrumentation on "Painted Flower", it definitely starts with the hammer dulcimer, and I think the "bell-like" sound is a glockenspiel. I'm not sure what the clock-like percussive instrument is that rhythmically follows the glockenspiel. Could be anything, I guess, as long as it fits in a bathroom. :)

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  4. Thank you for the help, re: instruments, David. It's a shame my musical idiocy is as prevalent as it is, especially when listening to music as complex as the music on "Realism."

    And, I never thought of that perception of the title, but I like it - give people a little scare. Of course, I simply meant "Betrayal," inasmuch as I listened a day earlier than intended.

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  5. Actually, I think there might be a glass harmonica or something akin as else, is that the "bell-like" resonance you're talking about? It's really clear during the guitar bridge when it doubles the cello part; I could be wrong. And is that some subtle flute around 1:43? This is fun!

    I read one review that said the production was "muddy". I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming they reviewed the wrong record. It's great on headphones.

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  6. Muddy?? That's preposterous! It's as clear as Mr. Merritt's production has ever been, particularly so when speaking exclusively of the no-synth stuff. Even if someone were to hate the record, I truly don't understand how they could call the production muddy. Just nonsensical!

    Remember on 69LS, when Mr. Merritt actually put all the instruments he played in the liner notes? Wish he'd continue doing so, though I do see his point in why it shouldn't matter. And, I believe that flute noise is a recorder, though I could, of course, be completely wrong.

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  7. Yeah, you're right, it's recorder.

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  8. What are the German lyrics on Xmas Tree? And what does he sing during the coda? Its driving me mad! "Where can my Sandy be?"?!

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  9. Anonymous, Jens Kutilek of the Stephinsongs mailing list translated the German chorus as follows:

    Nein, vielleicht ist alles nicht ein Traum
    Ist alles ein ... vom ... nicht?
    Alles ist ein großer Tannenbaum
    Welcher in den Weltraum geschickt

    (No, perhaps all this is not a dream
    Isn't everything a ... of ...?
    Everything is one big Christmas tree
    Which is sent into space)

    And, Mr. Merritt is saying "Where can that Sandy be?" in reference to Santa Claus, I presume.

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