The nine albums recorded certainly haven't been linked by their sonic contents. No, Stephin Merritt's indie-pop band have never had a problem with diversity.
Simply by scanning down the album titles the band have to their name can you spot what each have in common: a theme. It seems that before an album's conception, Merritt and company set themselves some kind of limitation in terms of philosophy or musical-style of the album. 1999's revered masterpiece 69 Love Songs was just that, sixty-nine songs which dealt with the issue of romance over the course of three hours. The sparingly-titled I concerned itself with the more introspectively-natured songs, usually commencing each track title with a pronoun. Previous album Distortion was a tribute to The Jesus & Mary Chain and the rest of the shoegaze elite.
So what of Realism? What is its catch? Simply put, it's an acoustic album, the equal and opposite reaction to Distortion, the yin to its yang, the Darth Vader to its Luke Skywalker, the Glenn Beck to its Keith Olbermann. While Distortion wallowed in an electric-haze, Realism shines in perfect clarity in a voice virtually untouched by the twentieth century (not counting how you're listening to the album). With a complete ban on any instruments requiring a power supply, The Magnetic Fields have stripped their core sound down its base elements, and happily for them, they have an extremely rich and talented core.
Therefore it is down to a eclectic orchestra of mandolins, banjos, honky-tonk pianos and other various stringed, wind and percussive instruments to compile The Magnetic Fields' brand of baroque-folk.
Doing such a U-turn from the sound of Distortion, it may be tricky for some to acclimatise themselves to such a diverging style of music. Those not versed in traditional folk may find the clinically-relaxed arrangements trying of their patience. The likes of "We're Having A Hootenanny" seem to struggle the most with the concept, having neither the energy nor the draw to fully engage listeners to investigate what lies beneath the surface.
After all, this is the main reason people come to a Stephin Merritt shindig, for his wry, witty observations on life and his dark sense of humour. Yet even here, Merritt falls short this time. Instead of raising a smile or intrigue multiple times each song, as he has on most albums previously, here the insightful lyricism is worryingly sporadic. For every "You can't go 'round just saying stuff / Because it's pretty / And I no longer drink enough / To think you're witty" ("You Must Be Out Of Your Mind"), there's a "I'm just a painted flower / A frozen bloom / Left alone in some forgotten room / A fly in amber / I pose in my tomb" ("Painted Flower") to offset it with barely passable metaphors.
As with most geniuses, what equals sub-par for them is beyond even the fantasy reach of mere mortals. Therefore Realism is still an album which stands high amidst the myriad of modern-folk albums currently crowding the release slates. What it isn't though, is the magnificent counterpoint that it should have been to Distortion.