Maybe Stephin Merritt could’ve spent the rest of his career demonstrating the bottomless potential of makeshift indie-rock instrumentation and direct, memorable pop melodies, but I guess we’ll never know. On the new i (Nonesuch), the first Magnetic Fields album in half a decade, Merritt’s gotten fancy–scoring Chinese operas will do that to a guy, I suppose, as will graduating from Merge Records to a Warner subsidiary. The complex string arrangement on the opening track, “I Die,” isn’t just tacked-on frippery but an integral part of the composition–a tune that stands in sharp contrast to the rerecorded Merritt oldie that follows, the singsongy “I Don’t Believe You.” Merritt sings lead on all 14 of the album’s tracks, and the way his doleful baritone clouds even his sunnier sentiments makes Claudia Gonson’s contributions to 69 Love Songs seem all the more precious in retrospect–her vocals could pluck hopefulness out of Merritt’s most despondent lyrics. A refined fatalism concerning all things romantic is as acceptable an artistic pose as ever, so the unremittingly downcast mood of i may be intended as a middlebrow selling point–just like, I suspect, Merritt’s newfound restraint with the cheesy electronics. (The keyboards on “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend” are classy and minimal, as though he feared discomfiting Fresh Air listeners with his usual Erasure homages.) At any rate, that middlebrow crowd is aswarm with potential suckers for the sensibility Merritt flaunts–an urbane pessimism that’s fascinated with the theatrical unreality of love but desperately longs to believe in it. Andrew Bird opens. $20, $18 for Old Town School members; at press time tickets were available only for the early Saturday show. Friday, June 25, 8 PM, and Saturday and Sunday, June 26 and 27, 3:30 and 8 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000 or 866-468-3401.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Buck.