First off, the obligatory info: all the songs on the album begin with the letter "I" (therefore
the title). After Magnetic Fields' well-received previous magnum opus, the triple
disc 69 Love Songs (which, as the title states, featured 69 love songs),
it seems that critics are champing to designate i as a concept album as
well. According to Stephin Merritt, AKA Magnetic Fields' brain trust, there's
no grand concept here, just a realization that all the songs happen to begin
with the ninth letter of the alphabet, so he decided to name his album after
said letter. With that out of the way…
I recently saw "De-lovely," the Cole Porter biopic, and while it was certainly cringe-worthy seeing Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow interpreting classic tunes from one of the great American songbooks, I was reminded of how elegantly timeless Porter's music is, how even his great "Night and Day" keeps its sparkling beauty intact (even though, from now until the end of time, the song will remind of me of a 24-hour antiperspirant that used the song in its commercial). The songs on i have that Porter quality, a classic combination of witty lyrics and elegant pop music that seems like it could have been written 20 years ago or 20 years from now.
Porter was gay, as is Merritt; both their songs deal with the nature and meaning of love and the mixed flurry of emotions that go along when it is gained and lost. But it is the Magnetic Fields' quirky lyrics that make their take on love unique from others, even those of a wordsmith like Porter. In "If There's Such a Thing as Love," Merritt, surprised to find himself in love, quotes his mother's advice to him when he was 2 years old: "Love is funny; you will laugh/ 'Til the day you turn 3."
"Is This What They Used to Call Love?" deals with the end of a relationship, and the lyrics project disappointment and heartache in a bitterly amusing way: "Feels like December, but it's May/ I've gone as pale as Doris Day." The strangest and most entertaining song on the album is "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin," with Merritt wistfully brainstorming as to how his life would be better if he had an evil twin who would "lie and steal and…stink of sex appeal" and do all his dirty work for him so Merritt would "get no blame and feel no shame/ 'Cause evil's not my cup of tea."
Merritt has a somewhat monotone voice, while the songs are sweet, airy arrangements of piano, guitar, cello and banjo (two exceptions to this are the ornate, orchestral pop of "In an Operetta" and the delightfully cheesy dance tune "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend"). Yet the marked contrast between the deadpan vocals and the lightness of the music mostly works, although because of the limitations of Merritt's vocal range, he is not always able to project the same depth of feeling detailed in the songs' lyrics.
One exception is "It's Only Time," a song stripped of the artist's trademark droll whimsy. Merritt sounds incredibly open and vulnerable in expressing his limitless love for another, asking him to "marry me/ And in your hands/ I will be free." And at a time when gay marriages are recognized as legal unions in some states, the words "marry me" have appreciable resonance.
"De-lovely" shows how Porter used his songs to reflect his pain and confusion
as a closeted gay man who had a loving relationship with his wife, and how he
hid the homosexual overtones of his songs with clever innuendo. Merritt is a
similarly witty songwriter, and unlike Porter, can be completely open about his
sexuality. One of the reasons that Porter's words are so timeless is because
lyrics are sexually ambiguous, and therefore open to interpretation. Merritt,
on the other hand, can be open about his sexuality; he can freely express his
individuality, his feelings, his real self. Porter could have never written a
song called "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" in his day, but the sophisticated
sensibilities of his music live on today in i.