Considering the number of band names under which Stephen Merritt has elected to disseminate his particular, chameleonic brand of musical genius, it would be tough to plot any sort of meaningful direction for his career. Sure, i
is his marquee band's inevitable move to the major-label big leagues, just as 69 Love Songs
was his obvious, London Calling
-style shot at immortality. However, The Gothic Archies, The Sixths and The Future Bible Heroes all tackle the melding of eccentric instrumentation with Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building songcraft in ways different enough that it's difficult to see any musical direction or plan overhanging the whole, grand endeavor.
If you consider only the Magnetic Fields' output, a gentle, downward-sloping curve emerges: the ever-waning prominence of synth-pop in the Fields' output. From the early, almost all-synth, no-Merritt-vocals efforts Distant Plastic Trees and Wayward Bus to the synth-heavy but more organic Charm of the Highway Strip, to the only-when-absolutely-necessary electronics of 69 Love Songs, the keyboards are there. Now, according to the liner notes, i contains "no synths". While I have my doubts about this (I'm curious to know where some of the effects on "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" and other tracks came from, if not from a synthesizer), the declaration itself is worthy of note: Merritt is clearly directing his band further and further from its origins. The question, then, is what he is directing it toward.
The answer, it seems, is that he's trying to create a sound that is as effective in the midst of lush production values as it is when played by just a few instruments on stage. At least since the Highway Strip era, the band has been playing live with purely acoustic instrumentation, which, although well-executed, sounded like a strange, MTV Unplugged version of the band's sound. The touring band usually came close to the album versions of the 69 Love Songs material, but the standard configuration of piano and/or drums, guitar, ukulele and cello should be able to handle virtually all of the heavy lifting on i, given that the studio-only additions are relegated almost exclusively to the burnished edges of the disc's polished production.
So, those of you who haven't yet picked it up: buy it. You already knew that, as the man doesn't generally produce clunkers (soundtracks for sensitive, pedophilia-addressing indie films don't count), but if it helps to see yet another reviewer confirm your decision, then consider it confirmed. The fourteen tracks here showcase most, if not all, of Merritt and company's talents, and more than a few are strong additions to the Magnetic Fields canon. "I Wish I Had An Evil Twin" is as good as the first tier of 69's tracks, as is "If There's Such A Thing As Love" (which is one of the album's lushest efforts, and amply demonstrates how Merritt's production talents and the resources of a major label can make beautiful music together). "I Don't Believe You", an older track, is given a spit-and-polish as well, and it sounds good: little tricks like the quick-switching of the drums from the left to the right channel and back again really add to the song, without sounding too cutesy. "It's Only Time" is as achingly beautiful a statement of love as anything Merritt has ever written.
Also, as expected, Merritt's wit is as much a part of the album's pleasure as his music. The brilliant "I Don't Really Love You Anymore", which is dedicated to proving the opposite, includes lines like "Because I am a gentleman / think of me as just your fan / who remembers every dress you ever wore / Just the bad comedian / your new boyfriend's better than / 'Cause I don't really love you anymore." Nor has his gift for double entendre forsaken him, as when he promises to rescue his lover "Like a kitten up a tree / needs a fireman to rescue it / So your fireman I will be / And I'll really get into it."
The only real problem with i is the sheer volume of excellence we've all come to expect from Merritt. It's mostly his fault for making genre-skipping and epic-making seem effortless on the Magnetic Fields' last effort. Surely there's not one fan who hasn't silently wondered why, given four-plus years since that opus's appearance, he could only find the time to crank out fourteen more with his main band? Biting the hand that feeds us? Certainly. But it's hard not to reflect on the fact that every one of the three 69 discs contained at least as many (and in the case of the first disc, several more) brilliant tracks than does this comparatively skimpy release. Should we all be thankful that the band reigned in its ambition, limited its scope and released a fairly tight ("In an Operetta" and the last minute-and-a-half of "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" could probably stand to be cut) collection of songs, rather than subjecting us to Sandinista! redux? Yes. But does that make any of us forget our fantasies of 138 Love Songs?