The Magnetic Fields

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i Review

by James Christopher Monger

The explosion of material that resulted in the Magnetic Fields' triple-disc opus 69 Love Songs would've wiped out the average tunesmith, but mastermind Stephin Merritt wields a pen of bottomless ink. Like a long-distance runner, he paced himself, saving up material lest his many guises should grow restless. The 6ths released Hyacinths and Thistles the following year; 2002 saw the sophomore effort from the Future Bible Heroes and the soundtrack to the James Bolton film Eban and Charley; and in 2003 he scored yet another soundtrack, this time to the Katie Holmes drama Pieces of April. Nearly five years after Love Songs, the Magnetic Fields returned with i, a "synth free" collection of love, life, and loss that relies heavily on cello, guitar, and that most selfish of vowels, the letter I. Merritt's kitchen produces pop confections that can rot teeth, but the bitter aftertaste owes more to Randy Newman than it does Belle & Sebastian. He may be a stalker of clever rhymes about hopeless romantics and lost opportunities, but it's the failed and despondent receiving the brunt of his obsessive detail. On the deceptive lullaby "I Was Born," he laments, "Growing older is killing a child who laughed and smiled at anything." The specter of age is not immune to the pain of a broken heart, and the dense Brill Building aesthetic of songs like "I Don't Believe You" and "Looked All Over Town" resonate with the kind of desperation that's usually reserved for the young and naïve, but has manifested itself into -- to quote a song title from the 6ths -- an "Aging Spinster." Musically, i isn't that much of a departure from previous outings, as the "organic" instrumentation is often treated with the same effects that Merritt utilizes on his synth-based recordings. Cabaret-style pieces like "In an Operetta" are lent added weight by the self-described "awful" singer's newfound range, and when he unveils a surprisingly sweet and delicate falsetto on the gorgeous closer, "It's Only Time," the listener's voice breaks right along with him. There are plenty of prolific artists putting to tape their every whim, and Merritt's no exception. He may spread himself thin when overseeing his army of side projects, but when he leads his Magnetic Fields into battle, the results are always in the public's favor.

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