On Chuck Palahniuk’s website, the latest story assignment for students in “Chuck’s Writers Workshop” is called “Submerging the I”: Create a story that carries the authoritative immediacy of the first-person voice, but hides away the open declaration of that voice (all its attendant I‘s, me‘s, and mine‘s) as much as possible, because the I “bumps us out of the fictional dream—the same way a self-absorbed person irritates you.” Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields (and 6ths, and Future Bible Heroes, and Gothic Archies) is a master of submerging the I, which may seem a bizarre assertion about a man who has lately written an album called I in which every song title begins with I (granted, there’s an “If,” an “It’s,” even an “Infinitely”), and 11 out of 12 use the first person, and whose voluminous back catalog also includes “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” and “I Can’t Touch You Anymore” and “I Have the Moon” (not to mention “When I’m Not Looking, You’re Not There” and “You You You You You”).
But Merritt’s I is a chameleon, an artful dodger, merely the necessary X-factor of morbidly heartsick solipsism, can’t-talk-about-anything-else infatuation, and all equations in between. His Cupid’s-arrow vignettes reach deep into the fictional dream through heedless genre-bending (typically for Magnetic Fields, I jumps from Tin Pan Alley to the disco floor to the French baroque salon), ingenious rhyme and incongruous simile, bleary-eyed dislocation and straight-faced melodrama. How else to attack a topic as utterly exhausted, ridiculous, painful, deranging, and encrusted with hardened-syrup clichés as the Big L? “The book of love is long and boring,” Merritt sighs on the Magnetic Fields’ magnum opus, 69 Love Songs. “No one can lift the damn thing.”
Arriving four and a half years after 69, i is an avowedly modest affair, from the minimalist title to the homespun, wholly organic arrangements (with Merritt’s trusty teammates Claudia Gonson on piano and percussion, John Woo on guitar and banjo, and Sam Davol on cello); alphabetic appearances to the contrary, it’s not a concept album on the order of the Fields’ yin-yang 1994 releases: the sprightly getaway guide Holiday and the high-lonesome travelogue The Charm of the Highway Strip. His doleful baridrone more resilient than ever, Merritt variously plays the spurned sweetheart, the cad, the villain-in-his-dreams (on the heavy-lidded comic dirge “I Wish I Had an Evil Twin”), the perambulating loner (in “I Looked All Over Town,” he muses on a hypothetical haven where “they won’t throw rocks at me”). On a hat trick of torch songs, Merritt poses as the smooth crooner under a single spotlight with rattling glass in hand—or perhaps, on “Is This What They Used to Call Love,” singing into his drink in the wee small hours of the cocktail bar, having outlasted even the waiter. (“I really believe he’s gone home.”)
I recalls the agitated house sheen of Get Lost (1995) on “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend,” an insanely catchy j’accuse staged as a Visage-Erasure-Pulp scrum and propelled by jittery amplified piano. Notwithstanding a titular nod to master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, “I Was Born” (“I hate this part/Being someone new”) is also written on Pulpy stock—it could serve as the nursery answer song to the existential quest “I Love Life,” replete with playroom toy-piano plinkings. Childhood may or may not be revisited on “Irma,” the aforementioned third-person loner, which somehow entails hundreds of chocolates and possibly an auto accident—the near-imagist lyrics and broken phrasing forestall a sure reading. Exquisite and strange, abruptly attenuated and rattled by a ghostly minor-key piano progression, “Irma” sounds unlike anything Merritt has done before. As does, in its unassuming way, the final track, “It’s Only Time,” a straightforwardly lovely ballad-of-vows wrapped in cottony feedback and scratchy-wool cello. There’s no punchline or twist, just weather and reassurances and promises to keep. The surprise is there’s no surprise.