There are few albums that would rhyme gyroscope and kaleidoscope in a song called “The Dada Polka,” but such is the Magnetic Fields’ territory, where wide-eyed wonder is buttressed against a conceptual art movement and a pervasive sense of arch camp.
Conceived as a companion piece to 2008’s Distortion, Realism is a folk album that aims to test the ideas of authenticity and sincerity, which have been automatically associated with the genre since the days of the troubadours.
The experiment sometimes rewards, but too often struggles for urgency and warmth. In the album’s 13 songs, genteel instrumentation — fluegelhorn, violin, the mildest tablas ever recorded — tip-toes around stiffly polite vocal performances mostly from songwriter-frontman Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson. The liner notes state “no synths,” but the stereotypically cold electronics that Merritt previously has used to great effect might’ve warmed things up.
In “We Are Having a Hootenanny,” no one sounds like they’re about to cut a rug any time soon.
There are times where the detachment works. The closing number, “From a Sinking Boat,” is a gorgeously sorrowful resignation. It’s an instance where Merritt’s disinterest sounds like self-protection, as if he were steeling himself for the impending loss.