The level of self-imposed pressure that Stephin Merritt must have put on himself following the release of The Magnetic Fields’ four hour masterpiece, 1999’s 69 Love Songs, must have been immense. He smartly sidestepped the issue with the next album, 2004’s i, with its beautifully simple concept and alphabetical sequencing, however, where to go after that? I had seen The Magnetic Fields abandon synthesisers, an instrument that they had leaned on so heavily on for their pre-69 Love Songs output, and Merrit must have enjoyed working within that self enforced limitation, as the following two albums were recorded without utilising synths. The first of these, Distortion, did exactly what it’s title suggested, as layers of reverb and distortion were draped over the whole album, with the result coming across as Merrit paying tribute to The Jesus and Mary Chain, albeit by way of a curiously mixed bag of songs.
With one album cloaked in electric distortion, the next obvious move was to record an album which eliminated it. The near-entirely acoustic Reality was the result, and it was pretty much the yin to Distortion’s yang, top the point where the two releases could have conceivably have been released as a double album. The balance between the two albums even went as far as the similarly patchy songwriting, something which really hadn’t been a factor on either 69 Love Songs or i. Perhaps the pressure of conforming to the self-imposed restrictions impacted on Merrit’s writing, but the song writing on Reality can sway between the brilliance of opener, “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” and final track, “On a Sinking Boat”, and a few uncharacteristic clunkers.
Musically Reality is perhaps the plainest Magnetic Fields album, which is where it fails for many people, but it also makes for a nice change of pace. For me Reality is The Magnetic Fields album that I can most readily relax to, even more so than I. Reality is not a particularly demanding listen, and therein lies its charm for me. Sure, there are Magnetic Fields fans that want to feel that each of their albums should be challenging and exclusive, with enjoyment and appreciation of them being ‘earned’. Reality just doesn’t fit in with that way of thinking. Sure, on one side a song like “We’re Having a Hootenanny” might grate due to its almost forced cheeriness, but it’s a jolly number, although one that might have worked slightly better as an instrumental.
The final album in The Magnetic Fields’ “no synths trilogy”, Reality is among Stephin Merrit’s most divisive albums, but it’s also one of his most interesting for exactly the same reason. The acoustic soundscape ensures that Sam Davol’s cello work is highlighted more than ever before, and there’s an overall purity of sound which some will find refreshing. In some ways Reality is The Magnetic Fields at their most accessible, and that seems to be why so many criticise it.