To some, Stephin Merritt is a musical genius; to others, he's an insufferable dandy. But to most who have followed his work with the Magnetic Fields, as a solo artist and in numerous other configurations, he is worth the effort that his droll, ambivalent melancholy demands. Compared to the 2008 album Distortion a hardcore homage to the Jesus and Mary Chain, Realism, the most recent Magnetic Fields album, sounds as cheering and inviting as a hootenanny. Realism is an "orchestral folk" or "pseudo-folk" album, and while the sound is accessible, distinguished by strums, plucks and close duet vocals, the metaphors and emotions are as provocative as ever. Merritt joined B-Sides on the phone from his apartment in New York for a conversation about songs, politics and the nature of realism — whatever that may be.
B-Sides: Can you talk about the genesis of the songs on Realism?
Stephin Merritt: They're all from different places. "The Dada Polka" is the oldest one. It's based on a backing track from 1986 or something. I wrote the lyrics as an answer song to the Pearls Before Swine song called "The Surrealist Waltz." "Painted Flower" came from the Chinese opera that I did. "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" has existed in different versions for maybe fifteen years, same thing for "From a Sinking Boat." I'd written it and rewritten it. I had it in parallel versions. In another version there were two people. "Interlude" was originally going to be on i, which is why it's called "Interlude," but it was too folky. So here it is on the folk album.
Is there a moment when the songs are no longer discrete compositions and start fitting into a larger whole?
That moment would be mastering. Before mastering, then no.
Prior to that the songs could be on any album at any time?
The songs yes, not the recordings. Most of them could not have been on i, because they don't begin with the letter i. I don't think they do fit together as an album. The recording style fits together, but the songs don't particularly. They relate to each other only by accident. As with the songs on Distortion, and for that matter, the songs on i. Now the accident of having a title beginning with the letter i is just that, an accident.
Can you tell me why it was important to make a "no synth trilogy"?
I thought there wasn't anything new happening in the sounds that synthesizers were making, and I wanted to get away from them for a while. And I wanted to, after 69 Love Songs, react against technologism by playing within particular genres for a while. i was a soft-rock record, Distortion was a post-punk, Jesus and Mary Chain–type record, and Realism is an orchestral folk record, or a pseudo-folk record, if you like.
Folk is an interesting word to use. Tell me your idea of what that means.
I have no idea of folk. I was just using other people's [term]. I think folk is a ridiculous marketing category, and it's based on racism. I don't endorse it in any way.
Can you endorse or explicate realism?
Surely by releasing it, I'm endorsing it. Or do you mean realism with a lowercase r?
I meant the word. When I think of realism, I think of a movement in arts and letters of mostly the nineteenth century and later with filmmakers. I don't think of musical realism.
But have you thought of the idea of realism in recording? As in, this is recorded realistically, and this is not?
What would be the difference?
An implied truth value. When Steven Spielberg directed the presentation of Obama at the Democratic National Convention last year, Obama's entrance was accompanied by a strummed acoustic guitar, because acoustic guitars mean truth. And electric guitars played through overloaded amplifiers don't mean truth. They mean whatever they mean, but they don't mean truth, authenticity, return to rootsy values, etc., all of which we were supposed to feel the moment Obama stepped on the podium. Me being in the middle of recording Realism, I heard that acoustic guitar moment as a manipulation. It is that realism that I am interested in with the title Realism.
So it's an ironic title?
No. Irony is when you say one thing and mean another. One-word titles generally are not that simple. For irony you need a statement, a full sentence. This isn't a full sentence.