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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Magnetic Fields Go Folk, Broadly

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“I have an idea for a paradoxical theme album called Untitled, on which all the songs are called ‘Untitled,’” Stephin Merritt tells me. I have no idea whether he is kidding, but that’s nothing new. I never have any idea whether Merritt is kidding. In conversation and in song, Merritt has a droll, poker face of a voice, dry enough to suggest sarcasm but too stern to know for sure.

It’s certainly feasible that Merritt might one day record an untitled opus, though. With the most eminent of his many bands and projects, The Magnetic Fields, he’s established himself as the king of the high-concept album. The Magnetic Fields’ 1999 breakthrough, 69Love Songs, was a three-album compilation of just that. It was followed by 2004’s i, in which every song began with that self-centered letter, then 2008’s Distortion, a left-field foray into noise-pop from a band typically associated with more ornate synth and baroque sounds.

Merritt’s latest Magnetic Fields album is a counterpoint to Distortion called Realism, an (almost) all-acoustic folk album. It’s more eclectic than that description suggests, appropriating not only the folk revival records of the ’60s but also dark, Leonard Cohen lamentations, pastoral British folk and Tin Pan Alley pomp. For good measure there’s also a hootenanny, a polka and a Christmas song. Astute in its homage to ’60s folk LPs, Realism clocks in at just 35 minutes, and each song is kept concise. One of them, “I Don’t Know What to Say,” ends with an overzealous, very of-the-era fade-out at the two-and-a-half-minute mark.

The joke behind the album, if you can call it a joke—and again, with The Magnetic Fields it’s always difficult to tell—is that there really is no such thing as “folk” music.

“I was attracted to folk being this more or less meaningless category, where performers who knew traditional music could attempt pretty much any style they wanted and it would all be classified under this umbrella term,” Merritt says.

Though some ears might read Realism as an A Mighty Wind-styled sendup of the folk revival, Merritt maintains he has a real affection for these sounds.

“It’s the music that I first remember hearing, actually,” he says. “My mother was a coffeehouse, folky beatnik, and these were the records she played. I was especially big on Judy Collins and her albums In My Life and Wildflowers. Collins could do 14 different things on each album, sometimes with mixed results, but basically she sang them all well, if not beautifully.”

It’s that variety that most endears Merritt to the LPs of his youth.

“When I liked The Beatles, what I liked was Revolver and Sgt. Pepper,” he says. “I thought that changing the style of music every three minutes was a necessary part of being entertained for half an hour. This was before radio formatting divided music into genres that only a small group of people were willing to listen to. With early AM and FM radio, you expected to hear something different every 10 minutes. That’s disappeared.”

To illustrate his disdain for genre classifications, Merritt recounts a recent conversation he had with Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees.

“It was really clear that he hated being referred to as a disco artist,” Merritt says. “The Bee Gees had done so many types of music in their decades-long career. They did what one calls disco for two or three years out of their 30-year career, and even then they referred to it as white R&B—in the U.S. we can’t say white R&B because that sounds racist, but they’re Australian, and it’s a different scene there. But even the Bee Gees were… hold on, Irving is doing mischievous things.”

Merritt has stopped to reprimand his dog, who was named after Broadway composer Irving Berlin and is currently rummaging through Merritt’s suitcase. When Merritt’s train of thought returns, he vents that despite his own eclectic output, he too is lumped into categories, usually “rock” or “indie.”

If The Magnetic Fields had to be classified, he says, he’d prefer it be under his own term: “variety pop.”

The Magnetic Fields headline an 8 p.m. show at the Pabst Theater with opener Laura Barrett on Thursday, March 4.

Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly referred to Merritt's dog as a cat.