May 26, 2004

Magnetic Fields "I"

Magnetic Fields trying to follow up 69 Love Songs? That would be like Neutral Milk Hotel trying to follow up In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It is not an easy task to continue your career after producing one of the most legendary albums in the wake of indie rock, and that sort of pressure has stalled Neutral Milk Hotel's career. Guess what, though--Stephin Merritt, the nucleus of the Magnetic Fields, is making it look like a cakewalk.

Yes, it’s been nearly five years since The Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs. Stephin Merritt was not merely lying dormant since then, though. Stephin has been active with his side projects, including the Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, and even solo material for film soundtracks. The majority of that material has been quality work, not as good as 69 Love Songs, of course, but still good. Last year, the Magnetic Fields released several songs as part of the Pieces of April soundtrack, and I believe those tracks stand on the same footing with Stephin's best work.

By now, you've probably heard all the hype and gimmicks associated with this release. It's the Magnetic Fields' first release for a major label, or to be more accurate, one of those fake indie labels owned by a major label. All the songs on the album have titles beginning with the letter "I", hence the album's title. And, besides that, Stephin decided to make this album somewhat of a challenge for himself by using no synths on the recordings.

Gimmicks? Major label? In most cases this sounds like a recipe for

Not so with I, though.

This is a great album. Not as great as 69 Love Songs, but almost as good, and the best tracks on this album would have made more worthy replacements for the weaker tracks on 69 Love Songs. In fact, this album sounds a lot like it could be Vol. 4, since most of the tracks deal with love in some form, and well... they're just that good.

What kind of music do the Magnetic Fields make without the synths, then? Well, they still sound like Magnetic Fields songs, especially since some of the tracks on 69 Love Songs were acoustic, anyway. Surprisingly, there are some moments where the music sounds electronic. After all, this was a "no synths", not a "no electricity" rule. You can do a lot of with effects pedals and such. Really, the most surprising thing about the music is that it sounds a lot like musical theater. A lot of the songs sound like they came straight from a cabaret or a Broadway production. Normally, I would stay very far away from that stuff, but the songs seem just detached enough to be pure to my indie soul.

Spare us the gay people and musical theater jokes, please. Those are just too obvious.

Speaking of that, on this album, Stephin is the most blatant that he's even been in his songwriting about his homosexuality. First, there's the self-explanatory "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend", and then there's "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin", in which Stephin says his non-existent evil twin would have conquered all the men in the world and "he'd send the pretty ones to me." Well, I for one like hearing Stephin explore homosexuality in his songwriting.

Besides those, you’ll find a bunch of other love songs, a cute song called "I Looked All Over Town" sung from the point of view of a clown who's treated as an outcast for his looks (I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere), and another cute song called "In An Operetta", about a princess named Violetta, who goes through the classical music theater cliches of pretending to be a man and captaining a pirate ship. There's also a former vinyl-only track called "I Don't Believe You". This is one of my favorite songs on the album—because of the way Stephin sings, "So you quote love unquote me" at the beginning just makes the song. I should disclaim this statement by saying that I've never heard the original version, and I've heard more than one person say the single is better, so take that as you will.

The only bad part about this album is that it stalls near the end.
Tracks 11 through 13 ("Infinitely Late at Night", "Irma", and "Is This What They Used to Call Love?") just bore me. Then, things recover in the time for the final track, my favorite track, "It's Only Time". It's just so sugary, heart-melting, and poignant all at the same time. I could see it becoming a standard at the weddings of indie kids. "Why would I stop loving you a hundred years from now? It's only time," asks Stephin at the beginning of this song. He goes on to assure his potential partner-to-be that "years falling like grains of sand mean nothing to me" and "the snow won't change my heart, not at all." By the point near the end of the song where Stephin intones the words "marry me," even I'm putty in his hands. Yes, Stephin, I'll marry you! How could I not want to marry you after you've given me such heartfelt assurance that time is inconsequential to you and you'll love me forever?!

--Eric Wolf

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