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The Magnetic Fields - i

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Artist: The Magnetic Fields

Album: i

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Jun. 8, 2004

i is 69 Love Songs emendated, sans synths, sadder, and much less tricked-out. In brevity it betters the 1999 boxed set, in songwriting it plateaus.

Magnetic Fields have switched from a longstanding tradition of studio wizardry to a fleshed-out four-piece. The instruments played on i are mostly acoustic and, for this band, ordinary – cello, drums, guitar, banjo, electric sitar, piano, harpsichord. The scrupulous production once applied to dense stacks of electronic tones here functions to keep these instruments discrete, to make sure every sound is appropriate and none grating.

The songs appear in alphabetical order, perhaps to surrender one element of an otherwise meticulously considered album to chance. Each song begins with the letter "i"; difficult not to try to make something of that, but the more one tries the less one finds. Music written in the first person is not uniquely thematic, since that is how most music in the book of pop has been written. And the songs' protagonists are typically fabulous characters, either high on love or brutally beaten by it, so the album doesn’t feel especially personal or literal.

Speaking of i’s content: lamentations, low down jazzy tunes, a straight pop song or two, liberal doses of self-pity. The stanzas are explicable, hiding meaning nowhere deeper than an elementary double-entendre. The words are there to be understood, not deciphered or ruminated on. Meanwhile, Merritt reins in the convention of pitting sugary pop songs against caustic wit. Instead, the music tends to match the emotions. In particular, "I Looked All Over Town" and "Infinitely Late at Night" revel in sadness, punctuating despair with, for example, the cello played deep and blue. The one exception, "I Don't Believe You," is an anachronism, written and first recorded more than five years ago. Redone, everything sounds cleaner, but this song still stands out. It betrays the ecstasy of a musician writing around an infinitely repeatable chorus, which Merritt gave up in the five years since Love Songs.

After those 69, the Magnetic Fields are dry on ideas. Certain quips charm, some songs work, most are quite catchy, but little more than that. Here are some grandiose odes ("It's Only Time"), conceptual gimmicks ("I Wish I Had an Evil Twin"), and tightly wound beauts ("I Die"), each an instant correspondent to older material, continuing the conduit for the same stream of wry poetry.

Entrenched as they are in the indie-pop pantheon, and its fandom, the Magnetic Fields can never again surprise anyone with their gist. What they can do is keep churning out smart lines and simple hooks, changing only periodically to suit the decorum of having grown a little older.

By Ben Tausig

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