These days, the once-revolutionary Concept Album is a bit of a joke, but Stephin Merritt, leader of metamorphic indie-pop group the Magnetic Fields, is so fond of the form that he dabbles in Concept Bands. His Gothic Archies recorded two albums of ostentatiously grim synth dirges, while the 6ths assigned the songwriter’s dolorous tunes to an assortment of mid-’90s underground luminaries whose total obscurity in mainstream circles made the project a weird parody of star-stuffed supergroups.
Even the Fields themselves are rarely allowed to maintain a musical voice. The band’s last album was called Distortion, because every sound on it was distorted; their new one is called Realism, because every sound on it is clean. Stripped-down, acoustic music is commonly perceived as more emotionally honest than heavily processed studio work, but it’s the earlier record whose words more frequently signify earnestness. Then there are the album covers—Distortion is a bold black men’s-room icon on a tacky Pepto-Bismol field, Realism is a ladies’-room icon on faux-recycled paper. The joke is that the obvious symbolism doesn’t mean anything.
This is all very dry. But the Magnetic Fields are more than academics because of the ways their chintzy disguises interface with Merritt’s immutable persona—melancholy, ironic, affectionate, arch. His trick is to make the deconstruction of earnestness earnest, to be romantic from behind a mask. So Realism‘s clarity is as much a put-on as its predecessor’s obfuscation. It’s bright and clear where Distortion was shadowed and stuffy, and draped tastefully with strings, like the pastoral, slightly goopy British folk of the mid-’60s, but it’s a deliberately thin, affected sound. He wears his new costume with mixed success: “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” and “Walk a Lonely Road” are some of the best-sounding Fields tracks ever, but “The Dolls’ Tea Party,” which sounds like its title, seems designed to try people’s patience.
As a writer, Merritt’s first love is still self-subversion. He spends almost all of “I Don’t Know What to Say” listing things he could say, and the reasons you might reject them; as the song fades out, he has just thought of an alternate solution: “I could try and shove you off the nearest cliff.” The hootenanny he advertises in “We Are Having a Hootenanny” pours on the friendly accordion and tinkling piano to disguise a Scientologist demand to “take our personality quiz.” “Seduced and Abandoned” uses a baby as a bathetic prop for several verses before the jilted lover closes by offering it alcohol. And “From a Sinking Boat” closes the record with wry apocalypse: A shipwrecked Merritt pens a final heartfelt letter as the waters rise, then admits, “The ink is sinking/The page is blurred/And I can’t read a single word.” So it didn’t matter what he said after all.
Realism is a slight record, and often so chintzy it’s obtuse, but it contains lovely paeans to insincerity. Merritt got compared to Cole Porter a lot around the release of 1999’s gargantuan 69 Love Songs, maybe because he was a gay man writing ode after rigidly structured ode to pretty girls, but he has said repeatedly that he prefers Irving Berlin. Berlin was the Russian Jew who grew up in Manhattan and wrote a song about how much he missed Midwestern Christmases. Sometimes, Merritt’s own greatest ambition seems to be to lie his head off on supermarket intercoms forever. But maybe “lie” isn’t the right word for this stuff. At the end of “The Dada Polka,” he drawls the realest line on Realism: “Do something a little out of character, it won’t kill you/Do something true.”
The Magnetic Fields play BAM February13 and Town Hall March 10–12