So how do you follow up an ambitious, critically acclaimed triple-CD box set? This was Stephin Merritt's dilemma circa 1999. Merritt has been an admired songwriter on the indie scene since the early '90s, but compared to 69 Love Songs -- a grand musical thesis dissecting the love-song form itself and referencing everyone from Irving Berlin to Fleetwood Mac to Saint Etienne -- anything less was going to seem small and insignificant.
Merritt's solution was to put some space between his masterwork and himself and to diversify with other projects. Over the past five years, he's released CDs by two of his other recording projects, the synth-poppy Future Bible Heroes and the guest star-heavy The 6ths. Merritt scored two films, Eban and Charley and Pieces of April, and he composed theme music for a series of audio books by Lemony Snicket. Most recently he composed Orphan of Zhao and Peach Blossom Fan, two operas directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. Indeed, Merritt has kept so busy that it seemed entirely possible there might never be another Magnetic Fields album.
Until now. Having already covered the subject of love in exhaustive detail, the Magnetic Fields now return with a CD loosely dedicated to that other well-trod lyrical topic -- that of self. Each of i's fourteen songs begins with that most elegant and significant of letters -- "I Was Born," "I Looked All Over Town," "I'm Tongue-Tied," "Infinitely Late at Night" and so forth. Interestingly (or ironically, or incidentally -- you see how carried away we could get), i is also the warmest, most band-oriented record Merritt has ever made. Whereas many of the Magnetic Fields' previous works sounded synthesized and self-made, the feel here is very much that of a live ensemble.
Merritt occasionally operates in specific genres here: "In an Operetta" is a pocket symphony, "I'm Tongue-Tied" evokes an old-time speakeasy, and "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" invents a new genre -- chamber-disco. But the overall feeling and style is simpler and less rigorous than 69 Love Songs. The pressure is audibly off, and Merritt and his bandmates seem to be luxuriating in it. The result is a set of almost uniformly wonderful songs, an early contender for 2004's Top 10.