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The Magnetic Fields: i

December 23, 2010

Today’s roll: 2 – 6 – 14.
Result:
i by The Magnetic Fields.

Last year The Magnetic Fields released an album, Realism, to almost universally “meh” reviews. Fitting, since it’s an almost universally meh album. It really highlights what’s been Stephen Merrit‘s Achilles heel for a long time—his voice. It’s just not a voice you can take seriously.

This had been fine in the past since his career has been built on lyrics so firmly planted in cheek, he looks like he’s miming a blowjob. Realism strips away the humour and the wit, which leaves some pleasant but boring ditties with a voice suited better to musical comedy than popular song. It’s the kind of disappointing offering that might make one question Merritt’s reputation as one of the top songwriters of his generation.

The last album of his to geniunely back-up that reputation up was probably 2004’s elegantly titled, i.

 

After an artist has released an almost universally acclaimed tour de force like the tripple-disc concept album 69 Love Songs, what do they do to follow-up that accomplishment? Well, if 69 Love Songs was indeed the album they were following, and the artist was Stephen Merritt, they might simply write another 14 love songs for an album that could almost be disc #4 of that set.

The only thing that really sets i apart from 69 Love Songs is its unique concept of each song’s title beginning with the letter “i”. Otherwise it really is just love songs 70 through 83. But don’t be put off by that. It’s a welcome thing.

What made 69 Love Songs great was Merritt’s wry, sarcastic take on the ironies of love and life. “I Don’t Believe You“, “I Wish I Had an Evil Twin“, “Is This What They Used To Call Love?” all tug at the heart strings while pulling the corners of your mouth upwards. As a single disc it might actually be a stronger album than any of the three 69 Love Songs discs on their own, but in the production and performance Merritt is showing what might be a touch of boredom with himself and his schtick. Or perhaps it’s just a case of too many edges being polished off in the studio. Regardless, and issues of a slightly muted enthusiasm aside, this is the last time we hear him playing to his strengths on record.

After this album Merritt focuses on increasingly eccentric side-projects (a Limony Snicket related Gothic Archies album and a fake Victorian vaudeville/opera under his own name) before returning to the Magnetic Fields with Realism‘s predecessor, Distortion—an alleged tribute to noise-pop, which frankly sounds like the distortion was later added to the mix in an attempt to distract from the glaring lack of the brilliant songwriting expected from him.

At his best Merritt is a sort of tin pan alley Leonard Cohen with a more focused and cutting sense of humour (no small feat!). Or perhaps he isn’t, really. Perhaps that’s just a character he plays on certain albums. Judging by his work since 2004, it’s a character he sadly retired after i.

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