i, the long-awaited followup to the Magnetic Fields' acclaimed tour de force, 69 Love Songs, finds genius founder Stephin Merritt doing everything to fend off the threat of stardom that 1999 triple-disc set augured. Eschewing the giddy layers of guitar and dense, synthesizer-laden arrangements that yielded such genre-bending jump-ups as "I Don't Want to Get Over You," he makes good on verbal threats to dispense with 69 Love Songs' illusory orchestra, instead deploying a small collection of toyish dollhouse instruments and demonstrating a particular fondness for plucked banjos and ukuleles.
i's fourteen songs -- all starting with the letter "I," which the diminutive New Yorker sings in an outsize, laconic baritone while intermittently supported by his usual collaborators John Woo on guitar and banjo, Sam Davol on cello, and Claudia Gonson on piano -- rely on Merritt's gift for acerbic and bittersweet verse, glib throwaway rhymes, trenchant observation, and disturbingly frank declarations. On "I Don't Believe You" and "I Don't Really Love You Anymore," he employs an Abba-esque pop form and caustic commentary ("You may set your charm on stun/And say I'm delightful and fun/But you say that to everyone/Well, I don't believe you"). The intriguing "Irma" personifies in a charming 100-word sentence a daughter's relationship with her chocolate-loving elderly father.
The six earlier Magnetic Fields albums, as well as those of Merritt's side projects (the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, and the Future Bible Heroes), possessed breathtaking isolation and melancholy, the occasional hopeful aside making the subsequent disappointments more poignantly charged. But on i, the determinedly indifferent musician, who often sounds fragile and exhausted in spite of his cavernous voice, seems to have completely given up on romantic love as well as love of the road trip, as evinced in The Charm of the Highway Strip and Holiday; casino and midway lights are extinguished as he turns his attention to a bleak inner landscape.
Merritt's insistence on experimenting with style goes awry on fully half of i's all-acoustic tracks. "I Was Born," "Infinitely Late at Night," "I Die," and "Is This What They Used to Call Love" are Weill-style cabaret songs unmoored by oversimplified arrangements and homework-done-at-the-last-second lyrics. "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" is a sendup of the Pet Shop Boys, and "In An Operetta" is -- no kidding -- a minuet.
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It only becomes apparent with i's final track, "It's Only Time," that he has used the album's preceding thirteen songs as a subterfuge to his singular point. Profoundly direct and with only Davol to accompany him, Merritt chronicles a perversely persistent unrequited love: "If rain won't change your mind/Let it fall/The rain won't change my heart/At all." This, of course, is the thorn to the nightingale's breast, a showstopping payoff to an otherwise frustrating, sporadically brilliant album.