Live: The Magnetic Fields at the Orpheum Theatre
On Friday date night when Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields sang lines such as “I want you crawling back to me down on your knees,” or “No one will ever love you honestly / No one will ever love you for your honesty,” you could almost hear the cheaters in the crowd shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
Paying close attention to the words, in fact, was a wonderfully dangerous thing to do at the Orpheum Theatre, where the pop group, which is touring as a five piece in support of its new album “Love At the Bottom of the Sea,” played 24 songs about love and its many successes and failures -- mostly the latter -- via piano, cello, acoustic guitar, harmonium, ukulele and voice.
Merritt’s one of the most lyrically adept songwriters of the last two decades, and draws on the history of popular song -- from the classic craftsmanship of Cole Porter to the '70s sticky pop of Abba -- to make smart, literate witty work that is often as biting, gushing or cynical as it is expertly designed.
The songwriter has been releasing music as the Magnetic Fields since 1991, and is best known for the epic three-volume “69 Love Songs” from 1999 (though if you haven’t heard it, “Charm of the Highway Strip” is a '90s masterpiece). The work consists of 69 songs about the joy and rush of love, and the desperation and disappointment that often follows. He and the group did nine of these songs, and dotted the set list with picture-perfect work from across the group's 10 studio albums.
The song choice showcased Merritt as a classicist who revels in perfectly symmetrical verses and choruses that capture and illuminate powerful emotions, be it longing, as on “Come Back from San Francisco” (“It can’t be all that pretty”), regret (“Busby Berkeley Dreams”), or obsession (the minute-long “Boa Constrictor”). It’s this mixture of craft and precise melodic sense that makes Merritt’s work so engaging.
The songs he played from “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” broadened the cynicism and wit to include other themes. “The Horrible Party” featured the great scene-setting opening line, "Take me away from this horrible party and let me get back to mother,” and the vindictive “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre” features the couplets, “I know of a groovy place / Where every girl of every race / Age and bra size and IQ / Goes when she feels broke or blue.” That place, of course, is her husband’s secret apartment. “Your Girlfriend’s Face” is a revenge fantasy involving a hit man, crystal meth and two dead bodies.
And on “Andrew in Drag,” one of the best songs on the new album, Merritt described a night at a drag show -- “I don’t know why I even went / It’s really not my bag” -- turned upside down by the sight of a friend dressed as a woman onstage.
Over the course of eight concisely rhymed verses he described a wealthy, woman-loving man thrown into a tornado of passion: “I’d sign away my trust fund / I would even sell the Jag / If I could spend my misspent youth / With Andrew in drag.” Like the best of his work, it was a novel disguised as a song, so rich with narrative expression that it’d take a volume to completely unpack.
Though Merritt performs much of the music on his studio albums himself, the live incarnation of Magnetic Fields has long featured Claudia Gonson on piano and vocals, cellist Sam Davol and guitarist John Woo, all of whom where in typically elegant form on Friday. The core group was augmented by vocalist/ukulele player Shirley Simms, whose presence tilted the set list toward songs on which she has appeared over the years, including “Drive On, Driver” and “No One Will Ever Love You.”
Between songs, Gonson served as the Merritt’s livelier foil. Unlike him, she’s a chatty, personable presence who works to bring out the lighter side of Merritt’s grumpiness. He introduced the song “Come Back from San Francisco” as about a “horrible, dreadful city to the north,” and set the tone for “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” with the description of it as “a horrible, horrible song.”
Sometimes though his glumness gets tiresome and borders on shtick. Too, Merritt’s songs are occasionally too clever for their own good, and at their most self-indulgent feel like boastful exercises in flexing his lyrical muscle. “Goin’ Back to the Country” crossed that line, an irony-heavy song about escaping city life.
But that was the rare exception. For most of the evening, the Magnetic Fields presented extremely balanced work, both musically and lyrically nuanced. And, despite his protestations to the contrary, Merritt revealed himself to be a helpless, if skeptical, romantic.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Stephin Merritt, right, and cellist Sam Davol, left, onstage as part of the Magnetic Fields at the Orpheum Theater, on Friday, March 23 2012. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times