The Magnetic Fields
recently had the pleasure of discovering that Stephin Merritt is a pompous asshole. “Intimidating…pedantic…critical” are just a few of the many vivid descriptions of Merritt in a new Salon.com article, and Stylus scribe Kareem Estefan, after a fruitless attempt at an interview with the Magnetic Fields’ singer/songwriter, described him as “terrifying”. Normally, this wouldn’t put a damper on my appreciation of the man’s music—after all, Merritt may be our generation’s Cole Porter, twisting lyrical odes to amour that spin even the most discerning listeners into a de-lovely tizzy—but in this case, his incorrigibility seems all too apt.
i, you see, is sort of an asshole’s album. Five years after the epic 69 Love Songs—a stunning amalgam of ABBA’s bouncy kitsch and The Smiths’ please please please let me get some ass tonight romanticism (except more clever, more diverse, and more more)—redefined indie-pop as a hyper-melodic rose with sardonic, irreverent thorns, The Magnetic Fields have returned with a record of flippant, tossed-off, uninspired, only sporadically involving chamber pop that feels, dare I say, half-hearted.
Even the thread tying the album together is tenuous, at best. All the songs begin with the letter I, which would imply a newly introspective lyrical bent that turns away from theoretical romantic fluff and toward one man’s inner demons. However, for all his lyrical strengths, Merritt is a decidedly shallow wordsmith, more dependent on clever turns of phrase than soulful self-examination. This unbearable lightness, of course, is the key to The Magnetic Fields’ charm, but is it too much to ask for a band to challenge themselves? I mean, the songs on i are sequenced alphabetically, as if the band gave no thought to the album’s flow.
i has a couple of high points, most notably the anomalous “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend”, a bouncy bitch-slap to a two-timing lover that rides synthesizers and hand claps into disco heaven. “It’s Only Time” is a more traditionally gorgeous, piano-driven Merritt melody, with lyrics depicting a man’s plea to freely wed his lover, with undertones of protest against the recent legislation against gay marriage.
But too much of i is filled with second-rate carbon copies of melodic and lyrical conceits that were more fully realized on 69 Love Songs, and unlike that classic, this album has zero thematic coherence, unless you count the fact that listeners get to hear 14 more love songs. Understandably, 69 had its share of filler tracks, many of which are as entertaining as the bona fide songs, but i’s junk makes up half of the album, which is inexcusable over the course of 41 minutes.
My disappointment at the Magnetic Fields—for the record, one of my favorite American bands—is a product of their seemingly lazy retreat into a tired routine, when every music lover knows that the way to follow up a masterpiece is to progress even further into the abyss. True, the Fields could never be called experimental or groundbreaking, but neither have they ever sounded this half-assed. When I love a band, I’m like a tee-ball coach, or a rabid supporter of the Los Angeles Clippers: I’m willing to follow them through their mistakes, as long as they try. That’s what a fan does. And you’d have to be an asshole to not give the fans what they want.
Reviewed by: Akiva Gottlieb
Reviewed on: 2004-05-11