"There's a Robert Fripp album," he says. "Well, actually it's a Roches album, I like to think of it as a Robert Fripp album. He produced it. He called it 'audio vérité' — this seems to mean that there's no reverb, that everything's miked very closely, and there's no obvious effects used. Now, I find this idea to be a joke — but I'm not sure he meant it as a joke. The Roches are a folk group — if there is such a thing — so, clearly, this album was foremost in my head when I was producing Realism, but I would sooner die than record an album in 'audio vérité' — or I'd just get Robert Fripp to do it."
Fair enough. Although Realism's 13 songs stick to the all-acoustic script — accordions, violins, banjos, and tubas, but no drums — there's plenty of decisively non-realist tomfoolery at work. Every track of "I Don't Know What To Say" was fed through an old spring reverb in a last-ditch effort to save the mix, an innocuous Christmas song turns abruptly German for a verse, and imaginary characters populate the verses — from a mermaid to a wolfboy to Santa Claus. Merritt would likely be more wary of Realism's being mistaken for autobiography were it not for its far-flung cast. "If you're not writing about yourself, you can say anything you want, and it will probably be more revealing of your personality than if you're writing openly about your own life. You can't say 'I'm unhappy in love' or your wife will yell at you. You can't say 'I'm terribly fucked up' or your mother will get upset."
If Realism seems, on its surface, like Merritt at his starkest (even the packaging is faux cardboard), deep down it's also Merritt at his sneakiest. There's some bitchy socialite cat-scratching tucked into the nursery-ready "The Dolls' Tea Party," a sinister "personality quiz" smuggled into the innocuous-sounding gathering of "We're Having a Hootenanny," and an uncertain ending in the form of a shipwreck on the closing "From a Sinking Boat."
If it feels wrong to penalize Merritt for something like defiant consistency, that may be because within his apparent repetition is the same stunning variety and versatility that caught so many ears by the brain in the first place. Realism's æsthetic touchstones might be somewhere between Fripp's over-enforced purism and Judy Collins's multifarious "variety folk" albums — but, really, its references are as much of a tantalizing tangle as on any of Merritt's past offerings. The album has remained unsmothered by his own self-awareness. A feat in itself.
"With the same old technology, everything is going to sound like a reference," he concludes. "But 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. For my next record, maybe I'll try some modernism and pretend it's possible to be original."
MAGNETIC FIELDS | Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont St, Boston | February 10-11 at 8 pm | $30 | 617.931.2000 orwww.ticketmaster.com