The Magnetic Fields: Realism, in "Nothing Not New"

Welcome to "Nothing Not New," a yearlong project in which New Times editorial operations manager Jay Bennett, a 40-year-old music fan and musician, will listen only to music released in 2010. Each Monday through Friday, he will listen to one new record (no best ofs, reissues, or concert recordings) and write about it. Why? Because in the words of his editor, Martin Cizmar, he suffers from "aesthetic atrophy," a wasting away of one's ability to embrace new and different music as one ages. Read more about this all-too-common ailment here.


Artist: The Magnetic Fields
Title: Realism
Release date: January 26, 2010
Label: Nonesuch

What a frustrating record Realism is. You get the feeling that this Brooklyn band could really do anything it wants, yet it chooses to goof around. Is anyone writing better melodies than The Magnetic Fields? Not that I've heard recently. 

These guys clearly understand their formidable musical prowess, but they're too lazy, too contrarian, too pretentious, or too afraid of their own success to use their powers for good. I recognize that this is MF's artistic statement and it's "what they do." And you may be asking, who the hell am I to question it. Fair enough. I'm simply a music fan who hears pop greatness buried under The Magnetic Fields' forced eclecticism. Perhaps MF are attempting to challenge the listener by ditching the traditional electric guitar-bass-drums-vocals lineup to use all manner of diverse instrumentation: autoharp, cello, flute, a vast array of percussion. Make no mistake, it's all expertly arranged and performed, but, to my ears, MF could do so much less with the songs and turn them into pop gold.

For every should-be pop masterpiece ("You Should Be Out of Your Mind") on Realism, there's an exercise in hokum. Ever heard Spinal Tap's "Cups and Cakes," a spoof of the British Invasion bands' tendency to dabble in the realm of the dandy? There is one too many songs like that on Realism -- songs seemingly written for the 5-year-old children of their aging hipster fans. Then again, there are incredible songs like the Brian Wilson-esque "I Don't Know What to Say" and darkly exquisite gems "Walk a Lonely Road" and "Better Things." 

I know this band's been around for a while, but I'm unfamiliar with its past output. And I read that Realism is part of a "no synth" trilogy, and that their next record supposedly will be created mostly with synthesizers. Are Magnetic Fields too clever for their own good? Too smart and talented to keep it simple? What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment in the space below.

Best song: "You Must Be Out of Your Mind," the opening track. Like most of the best songs on Realism, it's lyrically dark with sharp pop hooks.
Rotation: Medium-heavy. This could grow on me.
Deja Vu: Their Satantic Majesties Request meets Pet Sounds
I'd rather listen to: The Kinks.
Grade: Best songs here: A; everything else: D


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