Let’s be honest, Mr. Merritt: Making a follow-up to 69 Love Songs is the ultimate fuck-show. It’s been five years since you produced that sprawling, three-hour masterpiece, in which countless musical genres and cliches were simultaneously worshipped and massacred while earth-shattering conclusions and criticisms were made about the most overused topic in all of art itself. Oh, and let’s not forget how effortlessly lovely, catchy and universal those sixty-nine songs sounded. Pray tell, what’s your next move Mr. Merritt?
Amazingly, Stephen Merritt and the rest of the Magnetic Fields have opted to shape their follow-up, much shorter album around an even broader subject: the self, or the “I” of the title. Merritt’s love of concept albums yielded great work during the ’90s (the road-song collection The Charm of the Highway Strip from 1994 is equal to if not better than 69 Love Songs). But i completely fails to convey its cohesive idea. Only “I Was Born” and “I Wish I Had an Evil Twin” succeed in exposing Merritt’s concept of self as a complex and tragic object of beauty; the rest of the songs on the album (“I Don’t Really Love You Anymore,” “Is This What They Used to Call Love?”) feel like extras from 69 Love Songs, possibly thrown out because 81 Love Songs wasn’t as intriguing a title.
But let’s forget about concepts and delve into what really makes critics (myself included) deem Stephen Merritt a Cole Porter-meets-Brian Eno genius: his songwriting. Maybe it’s the resources of his new big-label patron Nonesuch, maybe it’s just Merritt’s wish to experiment, but i goes out of its way to discard the synth-heavy sound Merritt has been crafting since 1990. You can ignore the gimmicky “no synths” declaration in the album’s credits — effects are still prevalent in these songs — but know that the Magnetic Fields are aiming for a distinctly different, more acoustic sound here. For better or for worse, they sound more like a band and less like a heap of old Casio keyboards.
This new style risks accusations of selling out, and the emphasis on Sam Davol’s cello and John Woo’s banjo suggests a pandering to the dark gods of soft pop and adult contemporary, but everything still works just fine, thanks largely to Merritt’s songwriting. From the Mark Mothersbaugh charm of the minuet “I Die” and the driving soft pop of “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore” to the Cole Porter whimsy of the hilarious “Tongue-Tied,” many of i‘s songs shine. “I Don’t Believe You” stands out as the album’s best song, a work that manages to be playful, emotional and insanely catchy all at once. Unfortunately, this song also happens to have been first recorded during the 69 Love Songs sessions as a single in 1998. It’s telling that the rest of i‘s more recent work doesn’t hold a candle to the joy inspired by “I Don’t Believe You.”
“I Thought You Were My Boyfriend” and “I Wish I Had an Evil Twin” hark back to the great Magnetic Fields days of yore, but Merritt betrays cracks in his song craft during the noticeably weaker second half of the album. “In an Operetta” would have made for a nice genre throwaway in 69 Love Songs, but here it feels out of place. And “Infinitely Late at Night” and “Is This What They Used to Call Love?” are infinitely boring rather than woeful. “Irma” fares the worst, letting distracting sell-out guitar and piano arrangements ruin a wonderfully intimate ukulele tune that could have rivaled classics like “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing.” While I’m venting, I should also mention my dismay that Claudia Gonson and LD Beghtol, whose beautiful voices have animated some of Merritt’s best songs, do not sing any pieces on I.
This is not to say that I isn’t a good record, but it will certainly anger many of the band’s fans and scare those who, like me, retain some optimism about the Magnetic Fields’ future. Stephen Merritt has been and will always be an innovative and brilliant songwriter; he just slips up a few times on I. Let’s hope it’s a fluke and not a trend.