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The Magnetic Fields
Realism Iain Moffat , January 29th, 2010 16:19

The beginning of the last decade, you'll recall, was marked by an audaciously gigantic affair - 69 Love Songs - that, almost unthinkably, did exactly what it said on the tin. This one is are welcomed by an endeavour that purports to examine just what, in every area of music, is really, well, real. We'll say this for Stephin Merritt: he's no stranger to ambition, is he?

He is, however, tackling extraordinarily dangerous territory here. An exploration of the value of real versus synthetic music is always welcome; and is especially timely given a) the New Pop tinges smeared across modern popular culture and b) the fact that, even now, there's still one music channel trotting out the tiresome "Proper Music" manifesto. But there's a risk here that irony, that great scourge of our times and enemy of art, may well find itself unintentionally celebrated. Sure, there's nothing here that's aimed too squarely at the raised-eyebrow brigade, but there's an abundance of both twee and kitsch on display, and, frankly, there are occasions when the whole enterprise struggles to convince: 'Seduced And Abandoned', for instance, promises much with its faithfully-constructed madrigal beginnings, but is too rakishly mannered to provide any genuine insight, while 'The Dolls' Tea Party', though similarly skilfully crafted and somewhat redolent of how music boxes might have sounded in the K Records offices in their heyday - an intriguing call at the very least - flits uncomfortably between knowingness and naivete without ever satisfyingly alighting.

It should, however, be noted that, should any of the notions here not appeal, that's not necessarily a problem, as, so brief are the songs (the Fields plough through a full thirteen in barely half an hour) that there's guaranteed to be another one along any minute, and those that _do_ work do so very enticingly indeed. 'Walk A Lonely Road' is a fine example, Merritt employing a bleak, countrified rasp that gels beautifully with either Claudia Gonson or Shirley Simms' understatedly Dubstarry comfort over an accordion-propelled meander, and it topples wonderfully into 'Always Already Gone''s banjo'n'strings reveries and sighed, distant delivery, There are numerous winningly affectionate nods to the Divine Comedy via the rich resonance of harp bonanza 'I Don't Know What To Say' and the 'Everybody Knows' melodic callbacks in 'Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree'; again, though, there's an air of self-sabotage there, with too may crisp estuary consonants puncturing its purported joie de vivre.

Indeed, it may be that 'Realism''s greatest flaw is that its kingpin and his cohorts have finally found a challenge that extends their reach. Lyrically, Merritt's at his strongest here when he's at his most quotable (the bulk of 'You Must Be Out Of Your Mind', say, or the doubtless-a-bugger-to-actually-polka-to 'The Dada Polka'), but it's at these points that sincerity wanders by the wayside, and the range of magpied musical moments incorporated - lurching distractingly from West Side Story (specifically the hints of 'Somethin''s Comin'' in 'Interlude') through the opening of Cabaret Voltaire's 'Nag Nag Nag' and on to, of all people, pummelingly chipper choral types I'm From Barcelona - suggests that the Fields have in fact failed to fully engage with the simplicity at the heart of their concept. A pity all round, really; the pull of the notion was superb, but Realism, ultimately, is only intermittently attractive.