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TERRY GROSS, host:

Magnetic Fields, the band created by the songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt and a shifting group of collaborators that includes Daniel Handler, author of the "Lemony Snicket" books. The new Magnetic Fields album is called "Realism," and rock critic Ken Tucker says its music may sound whimsical, but it leaves up to its title.

(Soundbite of song, "Better Things")

MAGNETIC FIELDS (Rock Band): (Singing) On winter nights the mermaid sings, I was made for better things. Better things, dearie, better things.

KEN TUCKER: Stephin Merritt is the master of the cutting understatement, as well as the elegant overstatement. Hes highly prolific - at least 17 albums under various group names since 1991, one of them the collection of 69 love songs entitled, "69 Love Songs." His vocals tend toward the deadpan tuneless, but he writes lovely melodies with a sting. Take this oh-so-pleasant-sounding composition called "You Must Be Out of Your Mind." Listen beneath the pleasant acoustic instruments to hear a tartly sarcastic, gravely judgmental song.

(Soundbite of song, "You Must Be Out of Your Mind")

MAGNETIC FIELDS: (Singing) You think Ill run, not walk, to you. Why would I want to talk to you? I want you crawling back to me, down on your knees, yeah, like an appendectomy, sans anesthesia. If you think you can leave the past behind, you must be out of your mind. If you think you can simply press rewind, you must be out of your mind, son. You must be out of your mind.

TUCKER: To compare a hoped-for reconciliation to, quote, "an appendectomy, sans anesthesia," and to assert a bit later in that song I no longer drink enough to think youre witty, well, we can see the sort of realism Stephin Merritt is going for on this album "Realism." In another song, "Seduced and Abandoned," Merritt assumes the guise of a woman who has been left with her newborn child by a dastardly cad, and she meditates morosely on her future.

(Soundbite of song, "Seduced and Abandoned")

MAGNETIC FIELDS: (Singing) Seduced and abandoned and baby makes two, baby abandoned by you. Seduced and abandoned, and what can I do? I think I might drink a few. Seduced with a grin, I was taken all in, taken in sin and in shame. Seduced by a smile, I walked down the aisle, then waited awhile, no one came. Seduced

TUCKER: This album is meant to be a contrasting companion piece to the Magnetic Fields' previous release, "Distortion." That album exploded with fierce, squalling guitar feedback in which Merritt's vocals came off like menacing growls and, once again, sang lyrics that were frequently at ironic odds with the music. He's gone in the opposite direction on "Realism." Nothing could be further from "Distortion's" jangling power-chords than the toy piano of "The Dolls' Tea Party."

(Soundbite of song, "The Dolls' Tea Party")

Ms. CLAUDIA GONSON (Singer): (Singing) At the dolls' tea party, we preserve always the long afternoon of a warm summer day, with extended pinkies(ph) and pink (unintelligible), cups and saucers and pots and a liberty tray. That's why we take (unintelligible), at the dolls' tea party. At the dolls' tea party, we twitter along...

TUCKER: "The Dolls' Tea Party," with a lead vocal by Claudia Gonson, is one of the few pop songs in this new decade that uses the word twitter in something other than its social-networking sense. The dolls twitter merrily, making what seems like innocuous conversation. Merritt can be cutesy and cloying. That song certainly comes close. But then he comes up with the perfect use of his broad taste and essentially bohemian worldview in a song such as this rousing musical manifesto called "The Dada Polka."

(Soundbite of song, "The Dada Polka")

MAGNETIC FIELDS: (Singing) People of Earth, when you dance, dance the Dada Polka, life is only a dream. When in the mood for romance, dance the Dada Polka. Be as cute as you seem. Gyrate like a gyroscope, collide like a kaleidoscope. Freeze. Do something, anything. Do something, please. People...

TUCKER: Do something, anything, Stephin Merritt sings here. Do something true. Certainly, Merritt follows his own advice. He's said that he likes short songs, quote, "I don't go for big statements, in general." Sometimes, however, small gestures, small creations, when gathered together, combine to form a statement bigger than their creator may have intended. Or in the case of Merritt- a self-conscious a self-conscious artist in the best sense - he knows that the accretion of detail over the course of these 13 songs has resulted in a realism that is vivid, hard-headed and never half-hearted. He does something true.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the new album by the Magnetic Fields called, "Realism."

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