The Magnetic Fields: Live

By: Jack Stein

Stephen Merritt: world-class curmudgeon

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

March 26, 2012 / The Vic Theatre / Chicago, IL

* * *

I went into The Magnetic Fields’ show on Monday night with pretty low expectations. First, it was a Monday. Second, I wasn’t feeling particularly well (which actually turned out to enhance the listening experience. More on that later.) Third, I never have considered myself a huge Fields fan; I’ve probably listened to their magnum opus 69 Love Songs once in its entirety, and was left so exhausted by the marathon listening session (it is literally 69 songs about love) that I now feel strangely intimidated by their cavernous catalog. However, after prodding from some Fields fanatic friends, there I was, trudging to the Vic on a blustery schoolnight.

The last show that I witnessed at the chamber hall-esque Vic was Battles, and to say that a Magnetic Fields performance is the polar opposite is a colossal understatement. While the band is largely the artistic vehicle of principal singer/songwriter/accordion-player Stephen Merritt, he employs four other musicians onstage, ranging from a pianist to cellist. The band was workmanlike in building billowing, not-quite-kitschy chamber pop soundscapes for Merritt’s wryly humorous lyricism to inhabit, providing a cheery foil for his bleak paens to the maddening nature of romance.

Romance, or at least the futility of it, was certainly the theme of the night. Fittingly, this is the ethos of the Magnetic Fields’ entire career; with song titles such as “All You Ever Do Is Walk Away”, “No One Will Ever Love You”, and “Epitaph For My Heart”, you sort of know what you’re getting into just by perusing the band’s iTunes catalog.

What steers all this mock-mopiness and solipsism away from “cloying” and towards “brilliant” is Merritt, easily one of the more fascinating characters I’ve witnessed in a live setting. Ol’ Steve is a balding, aging, and miserable-looking homosexual man who clearly has had his now-calloused heart broken more than once. He possesses an extremely sarcastic and morbid sense of humor; the majority of between-song banter focused on dead animals and pet snakes. He appeared to hate everyone on stage with him, particularly the female pianist and sometimes-vocalist; every time she feebly followed up one of Merritt’s WTF animal jokes with one of her own, he either (a.) cast her a withering stare as he disinterestedly sipped his drink (b.) ignored her altogether, even sitting down at times like a bored kid at someone else’s birthday party or (c.) interrupted her curtly, as if he couldn’t bear being out of the spotlight any longer.

Merritt’s phenomenal petulance was best illustrated when the band launched into a song that apparently wasn’t in the cards. “We’re not playing that song,” Merritt insisted, refusing to sing and grinding things to a halt until he had his way. Merritt 1, Band 0. Fascinatingly, the band never complained or rebelled against their misery-stricken master, and this one-sided dictatorship became pretty hilarious when Merritt’s hearing difficulties (he has tinnitus in one ear) caused their questions or remarks to fall on deaf ears. Either he legitimately can’t hear, or he doesn’t care.

Oh yeah, the music. The Magnetic Fields played a lot of their new record Love At the Bottom of the Sea, which I have not listened to. Word on the street is that it’s not the band’s best work, and they must know this, indulging heavily in material from career twin peaks Holiday and 69 Love Songs instead. In addition to being a hyper-literate lyrical wizard, Merritt possesses a gravelly baritone croon that sounds like a slightly prettier Tom Waits, perfectly complementing the quaint instrumentation with some much-needed, rough-around-the-edges realism. This dynamic worked most brilliantly on 69 Love Songs‘ “Busby Berkeley Dreams”, with a weary Merritt croaking out every pained lyric like it was his last. This song, more so than any other in the set, illustrated the singularity of this act’s sound. No one else does tortured yet tongue-in-cheek melodrama better than these guys.

I can’t let you go without discussing the incredible crowd dynamic. If you attended this show, please don’t be offended: I have seen some homely audiences in my day, but wow, did this collection of mousy people take the cake. It was like every slightly unwashed and bookish person in north Chicago crawled out of their dank coffeeshop of choice to see hero Merritt confirm their beliefs that (1.) they are cooler than you are, (2.) know more of the lyrics than you do, and (3.) “get” exactly what Merritt is singing about. Watching these hipster heathens clutch one another awkwardly and sway to songs largely concerned with why love doesn’t work was pretty great in itself. Given how smart they all are, I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost upon them.

Leaving the theatre, I still felt like shit, but acknowledged that these were probably the best conditions under which to witness the Magnetic Fields. This is the sort of music in which misery loves company, the oft-gorgeous instrumentation unable to conceal Merritt’s weary thesis that relationships are futile. It also was nice to know that I certainly don’t hate the human race as much as Merritt does. With all that said, this is a unique and timeless act worth checking out; just bring an open mind and a receptive nature towards dead animal jokes.

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