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It's pop music's favourite emotion, and with this great splurge of creativity, songwriter Stephin Merritt marked himself as somebody who Just Knows about all its glorified and lamented facets. Reaching a cheekily rounded total of three times twenty-three ditties, lasting a total of three hours, he effortlessly tours through musical styles. Synth-pop, show tunes, crooner ballads, swampy country, breezy folk-rock, ambient techno, and twisted genre-defying studio experiments are delivered with ease.
Merritt himself does a large proportion of the vocals in his distinctive bass-baritone croon, assisted by the deadpan Claudia Gonson, and other guests when the songs' ranges require. The backdrop is a menagerie of stringed and keyboard instruments, seeming to refresh us with a fresh canvas every time. His trusty ukulele serves as a solid fall-back. Mostly acoustic but there's occasional forays into tinny synth-pop.
Any attempt to pick stand-out tracks is going to be arbitrarily unfair. From the exact placing of syllables on "Absolutely Cuckoo", through the idiotically catchy "Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" and straightforwardly sincere ballads like "The Book of Love" to the airy Fleetwood Mac pastiche "Sweet Lovin' Man", disc 1 alone is a lot to take in at once. Merritt puts an A at the beginning of the set and a Z at the end, but shuffle mode or random-play was invented to make fairly appraising albums like this easier. Dipping into disc 2 you might perk up the ears at the luminous acoustic "Time Enough for Rocking When We're Old" the lazy country of "Papa Was a Rodeo", or the rumbling basso profundo of "I Shatter". On the third third, skipping the dodgy Ace of Base-style reggae on "It's a Crime" is worth it to reach wistful piano-backed melancholy like "Busby Berkeley Dreams".
With his deftness with words and casual fluency with tunes, he avoids making the album a mere list-making exercise, producing a sprawling cabaret of pop. The quality of the songwriting here more than earns Merritt the right to goof around on the occasional throwaway one-idea nugget like "Punk Love" and "Experimental Music Love". "Love is like Jazz" on the other hand, twists its one idea deliciously into an incisive parody. His cleverness is smiling and approachable, unlike the geeky misanthropy of, say, They Might Be Giants.
Maybe the Magnetic Fields are still seen as "cult" because of the of their eclecticism. While they're probably happy to remain that way, it's not too hard to imagine some of these songs becoming a new set of love standards for the 21st century. It's certainly enough for me to keep delving into throughout 2005, discovering new glints in the gems every time.
April 2, 2005