The Magnetic Fields Return To Folk With ‘Realism’

Stephin Merritt, eccentric singer-songwriter for The Magnetic Fields, prefers to wear clothing only in shades of brown. He has a pet Chihuahua named Irving, after Irving Berlin. And due to a hearing condition, he performs concerts like recitals, rarely interacting with his audience and preferring minimal applause. Oh, and he’s gay.  So is Claudia Gonson; manager, vocalist, pianist, and occasional drummer for The Magnetic Fields. Sam Davol (cello), John Woo (guitar), and Shirley Simms (vocals) round out the outfit.

For a band with two, out gay members and often gender-bending lyrics, The Magnetic Fields’ fanbase is surprisingly not gay. By this, I mean that unlike a band like An Horse, a lesbian is no more likely to have heard of them than any other music fan.

Not this girl. I first encountered their groundbreaking 3-disc set 69 Love Songs in high school, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Merritt’s ironic lyrics about love and loneliness, combined with his striking bass voice, were nothing like I’d ever heard before.

This Tuesday (Jan. 26), The Magnetic Fields release their tenth studio album, Realism. While every song from their previous 2008 album Distortion was saturated in — you guessed it — distortion, Realism is a return to folk.

The instrumentation is crystal clear and organic, and Merritt’s smartly crafted lyrics return to familiar topics like love and break-ups. If another band had released this album, I’d probably say it was fun and unexpected.  But because Merritt and The Magnetic Fields have set such a high bar for themselves, I can’t award such easy praise. Realism is solid, but it lacks the pop appeal that’s consistently been present in The Magnetic Fields’ previous releases. And while they realism-distortion dichotomy, I occasionally found my senses assaulted with unwanted instruments – particularly the tuba in “Seduced and Abandoned” and the bell-like sounds in “Painted Flower.”

Photo by Chris Buck

Still, I continue to listen to this album again and again. I absolutely love the jangly starts and stops of “The Dada Polka.” It’s whimsical and spacey and, like all good songs should, it encourages dancing.

If you’re bored by what’s on your iPod and are looking for a band that will suck you into a rich discography, The Magnetic Field’s Realism is a good place to start.  And if you’re a Magnetic Fields fan, well, you probably already pre-ordered this album.

The Magnetic Fields kick off their U.S. Tour on Feb. 4th in Washington, DC. Find the full list of dates here.

You can hear the entire album at The Magnetic Fields’ Official MySpace.

Favorite Tracks: “Walk A Lonely Road,” “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree,” “The Dada Polka”

Skip It: “We Are Having a Hootenanny”

You can pre-order Realism on Amazon.

If you haven’t heard 69 Love Songs, you probs should: Amazon or iTunes

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Jess G.

Jess is a writer/producer with a knack for audio and online production. She grew up in California and now lives in Washington, DC, where she recently graduated from Georgetown University. Jess' jacket collection is obscenely large, and so is her music library. In her spare time, Jess enjoys riding her bike in the city, blogging, writing songs, and eating good food.

Jess has written 44 articles for us.


  1. Though I think Realism falls a little flat from their previous albums, I am just happy that Magnetic Fields is back. Great review!

  2. I once wrote a screenplay called “Smile All Night” about Prozac being evil, based on the Magnetic Fields lyric. Also I’m excited for the new album!

  3. I like the Magnetic Fields so much! I feel like it proves what an objectively good band they are that I liked them even before I knew they were queer.

  4. I can’t wait for the new album… I loved that a bunch of the 69 Love Songs were openly gay gay gay and gorgeous. This band moves me like a force of nature and i’m beyond thrilled to be seeing them in March– anyone else going?

    • I’m seeing them in DC on Feb. 4th! If it’s anything like last year’s tour, they’re going to be amazing.

  5. Feeling the 69 Love Songs love. In fact this makes me want to go and put it on and do nothing but lie on my bed and listen to it for the rest of the day, only getting up to change discs. And hey, I JUST MIGHT!

    I thought that Distortion was pretty good, and I think it’s cool that they’ve gone in a completely different direction from their previous album. Looking forward to hearing Realism. Nice review.

  6. I have known about The Magnetic Fields through a friend who’s hip to the music scene for years. I’ve enjoyed every song of theirs I’ve heard, but I’ve yet to break down and get their albums. Maybe it’s time I do that. I have especially mad love for “Reno Dakota”, my favorite one-minute-long song ever.

  7. WOAH. I came upon this while going through the “see also” things at the bottom of each piece, and I AM SO GLAD TO SEE SUCH A LARGE HANDFUL OF AUTO-STRADDLERS WHO LOVE THE MAGNETIC FIELDS.
    so. thank you for this article. especially 1.5 years later.

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