The five-year pause between The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs and the new i probably has any number of sensible explanationsfrom side projects like Future Bible Heroes to much-needed restbut it's hard not to imagine Magnetic Fields brain-trust Stephin Merritt freezing a bit under the pressure. A celebrated three-CD set, 69 Love Songs was like Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime or Prince's 1999: one of those minor miracles that occur when musicians test their capabilities in a flurry of creativity. Moreover, it was diverse, proving Merritt's facility with just about any genre. The question wasn't just how he could follow it up, but what style he'd settle on.
Musically, i mostly adheres to the modified, new-romantic techno-pop that Merritt pioneered in the early '90s, though there's been less "techno" in The Magnetic Fields' pop since Merritt began replacing his synthesizers with real instruments. Still, the slightly removed attitude is there, pitching a layer of drone over catchy songs, like a cabaret act filtered through krautrock.
Conceptually, i has a simple, undemanding gimmick: Every song begins with the letter "i," and often the word "I." Merritt turns his usual first-person lyrical style into a theme, transforming snappy compositions like the banjo-and-piano-accented "I Don't Believe You" and the perversely peppy "I Don't Really Love You Anymore" into meta-statements about self-absorption.
In the end, i's relaxed, quality-for-quality's-sake approach suits The Magnetic Fields as a baseline for the future. Merritt has proved he's a pop songsmith on a par with his personal heroes (The Smiths, Elvis Costello, the Gershwin brothers, and Gilbert & Sullivan), which means he doesn't need attention-grabbing grand gestures anymore. Besides, tracks as smart as the dreamy, melancholy character sketch "Irma" and the lyrical album-closer "It's Only Time" suggest how Merritt can top 69 Love Songs: one song at a time.