This will be labeled as the Magnetic Fields' folk album, and fairly so. Stephin Merritt's folk crush has been patent in his acerbically astute but sentimental lyrics from the get-go (this is a man who collaborated with Odetta), but it's never been quite as present as here.
Realism finds Merritt outfitting his esoteric pop with traditional string arrangements (rich with dulcimer, zither, banjo, dobro, harp, mandolin, etc.) that almost surpass the sparkling charm of his dusty, trusty synthesizers. Things kick off in the familiar lovelorn, drunken territory of "You Must Be Out of Your Mind," the seeds of folk rock blooming into wispy strums of dulcimers where the drum machines would normally be.
Harps and zithers deliver the spectacularly Merritt-romantic "I Don't Know What To Say." But Realism's nods to string music are not without irony. Sung with toothy gusto by Merritt's ever-evolving menagerie, "We Are Having a Hootenanny" implores you to "do-si-do down to our hoe-down!" Old-school fans may roll their eyes at this forward throwback, yet whatever conspicuous mode he chooses to work in, Merritt's songwriting remains conspicuously remarkable.
THE MAGNETIC FIELDS | Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont St, Boston | February 10-11 @ 8 pm | 617.931.2000 or www.ticketmaster.com