The 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 '60s/early '70s, which owe as much to '60s 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. There's even a deceptively festive holiday number, Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree, featuring a lusty chorus sung in German. 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.
Along with his long-time band-mates Sam Davol, Claudia Gonson and John Woo, Merritt is joined again by vocalist Shirley Simms and accordionist Daniel Handler. Also on board: horn player Johnny Blood and violinist Ida Pearle, familiar to fans of Magnetic Fields' earlier, independently released work.
1. You Must Be Out of Your Mind
3. We Are Having a Hootenanny
4. I Don't Know What to Say
5. The Dolls' Tea Party
6. Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree
7. Walk a Lonely Road
8. Always Already Gone
9. Seduced and Abandoned
10. Better Things
11. Painted Flower
12. The Dada Polka
13. From a Sinking Boat