The Magnetic Fields
Stephin Merritt's experiments have started to overshadow his songwriting since 1999's 69 Love Songs, his massive three-disc survey of American song forms. There he was almost as much a musicologist as a songwriter, tapping into '60s pop, honky tonk, punk, and Tin Pan Alley. Each album since has been defined by its aesthetic constraints—songs on i (2004) all started with the letter "i," and Distortion (2008) recreated the fuzzy dream-pop of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Now comes Realism, Merritt's so-called folk album and the opposite number to Distortion.
Realism, recorded with all-acoustic instruments, is easily Merritt's most pristine recording yet, but like its most recent predecessors it's a largely lifeless affair. The production is cavernous, like Phil Spector's Wall of Sound with half the bricks pulled out. The detachment and artifice on early Magnetic Fields records added up to a surprisingly potent emotional wallop; lately the same distance has reduced songs to exercises in formalism. There are bracing moments on Realism, particularly album opener "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" and the folk ballad "Abandoned and Seduced." But there's also an overdose of whimsy, always a risk with Merritt, on "We Are Having a Hootenanny" and "The Dolls' Tea Party." Even worse, and Realism's ultimate weakness, is that it's just plain boring.