Stephen Merritt, the songsmith and godhead of The Magnetic Fields, the man who once said he couldn’t stand the sound of an acoustic guitar for more than three minutes has created a wonderfully weird folk album. Not so much in a traditional Smithsonian-Folkways kind of way, but more like the Kingston Trio meet Brian Wilson kind of way. In creepy folk-police circles, where secret handshakes, numerology, and a sacred (and small) stack of LPs create an inarguable cannon of folk music, “Realism”, I imagine, would be heard as blasphemy. This is after all, a folk album without a guitar. There’s a banjo, an accordian and a violin, even a flugelhorn, but the closest we come to a guitar is the small four stringed cuatro. This, from what I can tell, is a Puerto Rican lute. No actual booming Martin, or lovely Taylor was harmed in the making of this record.
In the search for authenticity we re-write our past. We ignore our vaudeville and parlor room roots in favor of an austere, folk aesthetic of naval gazing guitar pickers as if tradition and entertainment can not by synonymous. Recently, in what is a seemingly endless discussion with my peers about core artists of the cannon, I had lofted Jimmie Rodgers into the discussion only to hear someone say, “but he’s an entertainer.” Now, keep in mind that I like the occasional, well written and well played naval song. What I don’t like though, is the assertion that ______ isn’t folk music. After close to a decade of playing _____ on the airwaves and receiving the stars in the sky amount of calls telling me what is, and usually, what isn’t folk music, I consider myself something of an expert on the matter. All this to say, I will play this new Magnetic Fields album as folk music and receive calls assuring me that, in fact, it is not. That’s pretty good fun, too.
So, what’s the deal with this album? Stephen Merritt writes a folk song the same way Shel Silverstein wrote poems and illustrated his own work. There’s a do-it-yourself in the the bedroom of your parent’s house vibe to the record, where you still have access to all those cheesy best selling folkish albums of the 60’s and 70’s and can stare at old wallpaper while you listen to them. On first listen I think it can come of as simple and weird. The songs Claudia Gonson takes the lead on fade away like Neko songs on a Velvet Underground record. On the second listen though, these same songs emerge as lovely folk-pop tonics to Merritt’s relationship realisms. Also, like Silverstein who jabbed and poked at television and obesity, parental disapproval and all our modern day problems, Merritt wryly mocks those old folk shows with songs like “We Are Having a Hootenanny” in which he trots out all the cliches of the folk movement and dissects it into self-help banality. Did I mention it’s also fun?
So, here it is. The new true folk. You can now pile up all those acoustic guitar albums into a gigantic, towering, teetering stack of dustables and let the corner bunnies nest away. I listen to “Realism” and think of Cat Stevens, CSN, Judy Collins, and Brian Wilson. This is folk music the way it once was and never was. Layered and lush songs about love and loss. This album is three shades of brown corduroy worn all at the same time. Can you dig it?