Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Magnetic Fields @ Barbican, London

22 March 2010

The encore is drawing to a close and Stephin Merritt is holding his microphone uneasily by its lead and spinning it around as he potters towards the front of the stage. It’s a knowing pastiche of rock star cliché, and a physical companion to the way Merritt’s lyrics have subverted the love song form all night long.

But while Merritt is the ring-leader, assured of the last word in onstage banter and undoubtedly the main attraction for the Barbican’s capacity audience, there is much more to The Magnetic Fields as a live proposition. Claudia Gonson has an engagingly chatty stage presence and an easy rapport with Merritt, while it was Shirley Simms whose voice opened the show, making Kiss Me Like You Mean It the first of many tracks plucked from 69 Love Songs.

John Woo’s acoustic guitar and Sam Davol’s cello contributed to arrangements that were gorgeous in their simplicity. The band’s lack of volume is apparently a concession to Merritt’s fragile hearing, and he had to cover his left ear every time the audience applauded, but it has the auxiliary effect of stripping back the music and bringing the vocals and lyrics to the fore. When the voices are as warm and charming as Merritt’s, Gonson’s and Simms’, and the songwriting as eloquent and witty as The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side and I Don’t Want To Get Over You, this is a treat indeed.

Unsurprisingly a large proportion of the set was drawn from Realism, the band’s most recent release. Tracks like You Must Be Out Of Your Mind and Always Already Gone nestled snugly amongst the well-loved older material. Merritt has 20 years’ worth of back catalogue to plunder, and he did so with aplomb. Fear Of Trains and Long Vermont Roads from The Charm Of The Highway Strip stood out, while the reworking of All The Umbrellas In London was staggering. The band peeled away the original’s synths to lay its fragile beauty bare.

Merritt has been known to releasing music under other names, but he didn’t shy away from incorporating that material here. Shipwrecked was recorded as The Gothic Archies for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events but it was just as funny and as heartbreaking as any of the songs the audience were more familiar with. Lemony Snicket himself, author Daniel Handler, is a former member of The Magnetic Fields but was not performing tonight.

Instead, the band’s guest star came in the surprising form of the chief economist at the Office Of Fair Trading. In a career change to match Brian Cox swapping D:Ream for CERN, Amelia Fletcher went from singing for Talulah Gosh and Heavenly before ending up reading balance sheets. She took the night off to sing Looking For Love (In The Hall Of Mirrors), a track she’d originally recorded for The 6ths‘ Wasps’ Nests.

The encore was a heart-rending finale to a breathtaking set. 100,000 Fireflies was followed by Papa Was A Rodeo and Merritt’s unlikely decision to ditch his ukulele and work the stage like a doleful, slow-motion Iggy Pop. Stephin Merritt is well known for his lugubrious demeanor, and no wonder. Unlike the rest of us, he’s tragically cursed with never being able to see the truly wonderful The Magnetic Fields.

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The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt: “It’s usually boredom that inspires me to start writing, rather than inspiration” – Interview
The Magnetic Fields @ Barbican, London
The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt: “It’s relatively transparent. My mother can listen to it without reaching for her earplugs” – Interview