META VETERAN “I’ve been in self-reference land for 20 years. “So I guess I’m better at it than the average first-album pop group.”
When 69 Love Songs came out, I would from time to time encounter its haters. They were an eager and ample bunch, always happy to share their feelings on the collection, and I'd respond to their piss-taking with a suppressed gasp followed by a scrunched-up glare of bitter, bitter judgment. Who, I would ask myself later, as I polished my thumbprints from the jewel case, were these people? And how could they so neatly dismiss this modern pop monolith? Was that supposed to be transgressive or something?
Ten years and a handful of vaguely themed Magnetic Fields records later, I think I get where those haters were coming from. It's not that I dislike latter-day Magnetic Fields material, but I've come to understand that excessive variety, exhaustive productivity, and precision craftsmanship are by no means sealers of the deal. The fact is, if you're not crazy about chocolate, you won't give a shit how big the Whitman Sampler is. To many, 69 Love Songs was the pop project of the information age, deconstructively digesting research, reference, and romance into a post-everything pastiche of artful mixtape-ready artifice. To others, it was like one of those giant cans of tuna you see at Costco.
If the great Stephin Merritt fever of '99 seems to have broken over the past decade, that may just be the result of reasonably lowered expectations. After all, Merritt isn't Sting — he can probably do that three-hour thing only once. (That said, Magnetic Fields are playing two nights at the Wilbur Theatre this week.) But it's also because his devotion to old forms isn't really wry or ironic — it's merely faithful. As admirable qualities in an artist go, that one can be a really big turn-off these days.
Merritt is consistent to the point that one might well suspect he pursues ideals over ideas. Each song on his latest batch, the folksy sans-amp Realism (Nonesuch), sounds more like refinement than an experiment. Many of the adventures he partakes in play out through small gestures — alluding to Derrida, dragging a dead branch into the studio for the rustle of its leaves, or rhyming "down on your knees, yeah" with "sans anesthesia." Without the wow factor of sweeping scale or grand conceit, it might just seem like another ladle of the same sauce. That such a thing could be considered a flaw says more about us than about Merritt — and to meh his music all of a sudden (as many are doing with Realism) feels like faulting a doily maker for making, groan, yet another doily.
Realism's conceit is strictly sonic — the "realism" refers to the conspicuous absence of distortion (especially after last year's JAMC-channeling Distortion). Although Merritt understands that in the wake of 69 Love Songs he must manually dismantle listeners' assumptions that the album titles have something to do with what the songs are about, he assures me over the phone from New York that he has no intention of ceasing to pretend, album title be damned.