After the massively audacious 69 Love Songs, who could blame Steven Merritt for wanting to take some time off? I was one of those people who wondered how in the heck a release like that could sustain itself, yet I've found myself going back to it on a regular basis in the years since it came out. If that weren't enough, know the words to just about every song and sing right along with them provided I'm not in public. Unfortunately, it's also one of those releases that sets the bar so high that just about anything afterwards doesn't sound nearly as good.
And while Merritt really hasn't taken that much time off (he's done some soundtrack work as well as released music with Future Bible Heroes), he has taken his time in putting out an official Magnetic Fields release. i comes almost 5 years after 69 Love Songs, but despite being on a larger label (Nonesuch) and despite dropping the synths, it still sounds remarkably similar to what you'd expect from the group.
Bound by a loose conceptual idea (every song starts with the letter 'i'), the 14 tracks on the release run through a nice range, varying between bouncy singalongs to quieter pieces that are quite touching. As always, Merritt seems to be on in terms of clever lyrics and the release actually starts with a couple tracks that are easily some of the best on the disc. "I Die" is the delicate opener that moves in an almost classical mode with both plucked and bowed violin and wounded vocals by Merritt while "I Don't Really Love You Anymore" bounces along with more strings and strummed guitars while minimal percussion keeps a patter in the background.
Even though the liner notes proclaim no synths, it doesn't really matter when tracks like "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" sound like anything that could have come off a previous release, with electric sitar filling in just fine and drum machines providing even more of a synth-pop feel. Merritt is at his best when completely embracing things, as on the great "I Wish I Had An Evil Twin." Shuffling with piano and vibraphone, the backing instrumentation (which also includes subtle swells of strings and guitar) backs the hilariously dark lyrics. It's towards the latter half of the disc that things fall a bit flat, though, as several tracks (like the harpsichord-backed "In An Operetta" and semi-bluesy "Infinitely Late At Night") simply retread territory that Merritt has already done better before. While i is definitely no slack album, you can again probably simply chalk it up to the fact that it came out after the masterful 69 Love Songs that it sounds like the less successful cousin to that release. Having created this sort of music now for around a decade, I'm not sure where Merritt can actually go from here without standing in the shadows of what he's already done.