The Magnetic Fields
Realism
(Nonesuch Records)

The latest from the Magnetic Fields is a rosy-cheeked, dapper little collection of morbid miniatures performed completely unplugged and to the band's usual perfectionist standards, with the vocalists turning songwriter Stephin Merritt's playfully disingenuous lyrics into deceptively captivating, solid gold–sounding '70s AM classics. Dressing these acoustic (read: "authentic") songs as novelty numbers ("We Are Having a Hootenanny," in which you can "take our personality quizzzzz!"), Merritt seems obsessed with how perfectly cruel and painfully false the world can be. What we associate with idealized innocence—dolls, dancing, bad art—barely conceals all too real wickedness.

Realism coyly flirts with the listener by means of a much warmer sound than anything the Magnetic Fields have done since 69 Love Songs. There are big batches of Merritt's frisky ukulele playing, frequent co–lead vocalist Shirley Simms briskly chiming an Autoharp, and Johny Blood's tuba-farting along on bouncy chantey choruses, along with accordions, bouzoukis, and supposedly the rustling of falling leaves as additional percussion. It was all produced in a real Los Angeles studio, a new technique for a band that recorded its previous record, Distortion, mostly in a bathroom.

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Merritt has explained this album as a kaleidoscope, a mindful throwback to the era of radio-aimed, chamber-cheese art pop of Judy Collins or Judy Henske. But much of the charm of those LPs came from the artists subverting the hootenannies and hoedowns with covers of adult-themed songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen or Randy Newman. All 13 slices of Realism are creamy, from Merritt's bourbon-croaking opener "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" to the Walker Brothers–esque "I Don't Know What to Say." At the end of that song, Merritt casually tosses out, "I could try to shove you off the nearest cliff," a threat of MOR murder, before Claudia Gonson mock-sweetly delivers the outrageously bitchy "The Dolls' Tea Party" ("There will be a test/To see who's best/And worst dressed").

Where 2008's feedback torsion-twin Distortion may have been the most subtle protest of unnecessarily loud rock music ever created, Realism convicts (in)sincere musical craft—which wouldn't work if it weren't so well-crafted itself. It pokes holes in myths of passion and pop, but it also contains one of the band's best brokenhearted ballads in "Painted Flower." Merritt deadpans "You can't go round just saying stuff/Because it's pretty" on the album's very first song, so it's not like you have no warning that Realism is one of the prettiest and most provoking pranks you'll hear all year. recommended