Album: The Magnetic Fields

i, Nonesuch
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The Independent Culture

Although the prolific Stephin Merritt has been involved in various other projects in between, this is effectively the belated follow-up to 1999's extra- ordinary 69 Love Songs triple album, his last release with The Magnetic Fields. But where 69 Love Songs featured Merritt in a dizzying multiplicity of guises and voices, this one seems almost entirely concerned with the songwriter in a personal capacity.

As such, it's appropriately named: all 14 song titles begin with the letter "i", all but five of them employing it as the personal pronoun. That's rather more "I"s than feature on the average Smiths album, heretofore the gold standard in melancholy self-absorption. And I imagine Morrissey would be delighted if he'd written some of the witty, occasionally caustic lines that Merritt comes up with here, not least "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin" ("... running round doing people in"), wherein he muses upon the prospect of a doppelgänger bestowing a dangerous glamour upon him by proxy, making him seem wilder and sexier than he is.

Not, of course, that a rockabilly quiffhead like Morrissey would ever condone the ruminant tones of gently sawing cello, clunking marimba and ticking percussion with which Merritt's band supports the song. Only hand-played instruments were used throughout the album, the resulting strains of banjo, piano, ukelele and harpsichord setting the emotional tone, from the wan melancholy of "I Die" to the jaunty, self-deprecatory "I Don't Believe You" ("You tell me I'm not not-cute/ Its truth or falsity is moot/ 'Cause honesty's not your strong suit").

Merritt's songs are sprinkled with the sort of droll conceits that have led to comparisons with Irving Berlin Noël Coward, their blithe, brittle humour only partially masking a deeper pain. In particular, there's a lurking apprehension in songs such as "I Die" and "I Was Born" about the inexorable passage of time, couched in lines both bitterly mocking ("You think your youth a permanent truth") and stricken with regret ("Growing older/ Is killing a child/ Who laughed and smiled/ At anything/ Growing colder/ And less and less wild/ And learning to sing").

i will doubtless delight Merritt's fans, and deserves to extend his appeal yet further. His lugubrious baritone may prove a stumbling block for some, as it naturally favours the downcast end of the emotional spectrum. But there's a rich diversity of styles tackled here, from the cod-opera of "In an Operetta", to the louche, 3am atmosphere of "Infinitely Late at Night", and the cool jazz croon of "Is This What They Used to Call Love", with Merritt in Chet Baker mode. Although Baker, as far as I know, never employed a simile quite as gay as: "Feels like December, but it's May/ I've gone as pale as Doris Day".

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