Have you worshiped at the altar of the Magnetic Fields‘ previous release, 1999’s three-part 69 Love Songs? Memorized every word to relentlessly clever country-pop tunes like “Papa Was a Rodeo” and “A Chicken with Its Head Cut Off”? If so, you’re in luck. Following in the footsteps of one of the most impressive songwriting accomplishments of the 1990s, i provides more of the same. The new-car smell has worn off, but the singer/songwriter behind “Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” still has wheels, and you’ll want to go for a ride.
Sly publicists might have you believe that i, the Fields’ seventh album, is more autobiographical than the others — hence the clever title. I suspect that the concept-loving Stephin Merritt, the constant in the Fields’ rotating cast, merely developed a loose theme around the happy coincidence that his songs began with the same letter, much as he says he chose the number 69 for its graphic possibilities.
Who would know? Whether Merritt mimics greats like Cole Porter and Johnny Cash or pours his soul forth more directly, the result is the same: Catchy, hyper-melodic tunes accompanying sharp-as-a-tack lyrics about heartbreak and lovesickness. On this Nonesuch debut, though, Merritt handles all lead vocal duties, lending at least one further superficial layer to the album’s “concept.” At least his baritone has improved since his previous recordings, which caused my mother to exclaim, “Is someone throwing up in there?”
In a sense, i is the logical extension of the Fields’ sprawling 1999 box set. Where that epic outing saw Merritt moving from the synth-based studio wizardry toward more conventional instruments, iembraces the live-sounding orchestration. The arrangements remain lush, but electronic drumbeats generally stay scarce, shy as a Merritt character. Opener “I Die” glides along with chamber-pop strings, while “Infinitely Late at Night” and “Is This What They Used to Call Love” slink through the smoke-filled shadows of classic film-noir.
Before everything else, Merritt’s impossibly evocative lyrics jump out. “So you quote love unquote me / Well, stranger things have come to be”, he declares in the instantly memorable “I Don’t Believe You”, which follows the banjo-inflected path of 69 Love Songs‘ “I Think I Need a New Heart” (a song that, come to think of it, would fit perfectly here).
On the similar-sounding “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore”, Merritt proves that the denial runs deep: “Think of me as just your fan / Who remembers every dress you ever wore”. The slow-paced, chiming “I Was Born” delves into grim existentialism with devilish charm. Speaking of devils, the mini-me of “I Wish I Had An Evil Twin” should provoke some outright chuckles. “My evil twin would lie and steal / And he would stink of sex appeal”, Merritt muses, “All men would writhe beneath his scythe / He’d send the pretty ones to me”.
Amidst the playful humor, Merritt reveals his true inner romantic, writing a song that should provide the first dance for many music-savvy newlyweds in the years to come, “It’s Only Time”. With inviting vulnerability, he croons: “Why would I stop loving you a hundred years from now? / If rain won’t change your mind, let it fall / The rain won’t change my heart at all”. The sentiments are gorgeous, timely (if President Bush gets his wish, Merritt, who is gay, won’t marry anytime soon), and perfectly executed. Even your grandparents will be asking for the song’s name after the wedding reception.
For diversity, the Fields’ Nonesuch debut can’t match previous efforts, but it sure tries. Anchored by a waltz-time harpsichord (or similar-sounding instrument), “Operetta” reels off enough Victorian imagery to make the Decemberists jealous. At an opposite extreme, “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend” recalls White Town’s “Your Woman”, with its dance rhythm and thwapping synth noises (OK, so there are a few).
A few mediocre moments mar the proceedings, but as you’d expect from an outfit so prolific, such instances are few and far between. “Irma” lopes pleasantly into baroque pop, but the drowsy melody leaves something to be desired. “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend” could stand to drop from more than four minutes to about three — most of the other songs wrap up just when they need to, and this one drags by comparison after multiple listens.
The Fields’ latest release won’t blow away longtime listeners, but for fans intimidated by the vastness of 69 Love Songs, i should provide a fitting introduction to a singer/songwriter at the top of his game. Many of the witty, lovelorn pop songs here can stand beside any in Merritt’s formidable catalogue.