The Magnetic Fields

i (Nonesuch Records)

The Magnetic Fields' i is no 69 Love Songs. Keep that in mind, and you'll enjoy it more. Like that magnificent three-disc album, i is a concept record with 14 songs whose titles begin with the letter "I." Front man Stephin Merritt relishes this kind of challenge and restraint, which seems to unleash--or at least channel--him rather than bind. i's songs are quirky, snarky, witty, self-deprecating, poignant, simple and orchestrated--just not as much so. Two of the differences are that the orchestration is all hand-played (basically, no synthesizers), and Merritt sings each song himself instead of calling on 69's contributing vocalists. The latter is a double-edged sword: Merritt's voice is sincere, interesting and emotional (meaning unpolished), but that detracts as often as it adds. He's like Burt Bacharach, a brilliant composer with an adequate voice. But sometimes you'd rather have Dionne Warwick belt out "I Say a Little Prayer." A few tracks on i (especially the piano-banjo-strings pop number "I Don't Believe You") rival the greatest on 69, redeeming the album but placing it at least a distant second.
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