I can hear the critical backlash already, the hordes of homespun critics and studied rock scribes alike, collectively clucking their tongues, and saying things like: It's no 69 Love Songs, is it? But let's back up a minute. The Magnetic Fields, for the uninitiated, is a synth-pop band with seven albums to its credit, although it wasn't until '99 that anyone started paying much attention. That was the year the group's three-disc magnum opus -- the aforementioned 69 Love Songs -- showed up on countless end-of-the-year Top 10 lists, and rightfully so. It's impossible to over-emphasize the brilliance of that album: Spin rated it a perfect 10 out of 10, and vocalist Stephin Merritt, who wrote and produced nearly every note, was frequently compared to Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. But new fans who worked their way through Merritt's back catalog discovered that Love Songs was something of a fluke; this was the album he'd been building toward for 10 years, a sort of mid-career debut. One of Merritt's other three bands, the 6ths, released an album called Hyacinths and Thistles soon thereafter, and again, it was a tour de force of classically catchy songwriting.
It's a shame, then, that i fails to make it a three-peat. Merritt's major stumble seems to be that he's strayed a bit too far from his God-given talents -- writing and producing -- and has chosen to sing every last song here, as well. On both Love Songs and Hyacinths, Merritt employed entire teams of vocalists, and one can't help but wonder how the delightful minuets and brilliantly timed sonatas of i might have been improved if a variety of voices had been allowed to interpret them individually. Merritt's own depressing ultra-baritone quickly becomes tiresome on i, and it's even more disheartening to see work this brilliant suffer from what seems to have been nothing less than a poor management decision. As Merritt himself might say, it's "infinitely painful" to write this: i is certainly no 69 Love Songs.