The Magnetic Fields
Andrew in Drag by The Magnetic Fields More
Written By Michael Wood Wednesday, January 11th, 2012
The first track to reach the ears with 2012 stamped on the label and it will be hard to find better than The Magnetic Fields playful gender romp Andrew In Drag which at a brisk 2:12 revisits the joy of early 1980s Sheffield electro-pop, adds a customary dash of Bowie and delivers all in Stephin Merritt's acerbic New York tones. It promises much for the album to come.
That promise not having been fulfilled on the 2010 album Realism which seemed to be exactly the album that The Magnetic Fields wanted to make but not really the album that those who had been in awe of 69 Love Songs or impressed by the inventiveness of Distortion wanted to hear. Too picked, too much of a project and not enough of the sardonic take on pop that the band have become known for.
"I've always been a ladies man/and I don't have to brag/but I've become a ladies by/for Andrew in drag". Its rare to have a band so impressive and funny at the same time.
The Magnetic Fields Play Place Like This More
Written By Michael Wood Wednesday, March 17th, 2010
The Magnetic Fields at Manchester Cathedral, Manchester
On a low stage at the grand auspice of Manchester Cathedral The Magnetic Fields are a curious enchantment. The first popular music band to perform in the religious hall since the 17th century Stephin Merritt - perched on a stool some two meets from the front row of the audience growls through Popa Was A Rodeo intoning "What are we doing in this dive bar/how can we live in a place like this? sweeping his arm behind him to the grandiose splendour.
The question is valid and sticks in the mind. How did the dour gay New Yorker, a refined singer, a cello player, a classic guitarist and the omni-talented Claudia Gonson end up with this level of respectability? One doubts that this night was ever part of any plan. It is a delicious irony and one which does not go unmentioned. From the underrated last twenty three of 69 Love Songs comes Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget - a double header:
Merritt: I'll turn into God Himself and then you'll come to me
Gonson: Well I will not believe in you and then where will you be...
Arriving late three seats in the front row are waiting for us for no good reason as if Merritt were about to dismount his stool and in the style of the new offensive comedians start abusing audience members who feared being sighted.
The inner workings of The Magnetic Fields at close range is a sight to behold and for a time one wonders if Merritt is really permanently annoyed - it would seem from his expression he is tonight - and that Gonson is that vivacious. An attempt to swipe guitarist John Woo and cello man Sam Devol's shared songbook is rebuffed by one of the crew after the gig. "They keep working on it, you know, changing things each night" he says "so they still need it."
For some it is as entrancing as music gets. Seated and discouraged from applauding it is more a performance than a gig and as such it obeys rules if not of the classic theatre then of the theatrical review. Kiss Me Like You Mean It is chutzpah, Shipwrecked bawdy comedy, Night Falls Like A Grand Piano definitive, and heartbreaking.
The Magnetic Fields are an acquired taste though - there are elements of tweeness and reverence in the audience which border on the grotesque - but one with substance. Departing on train it is speculated that should all be killed in a hideous ball of fire in a crash then, on balance, it would have been a good night.
Inspiring cynical lyricism in that way before The Magnetic Fields are infectious.
The Magnetic Fields at Town Hall, New York City
Strung along the stage at New York's Town Hall are Magnetic Fields. "We are here to promote our new record, erm, Distortion" says Claudia Gonson sitting behind a piano looking nervously across to the mercurial yet miserable Stephin Merritt and in the next hour and a half they will craft music worth crossing the Earth for.
For the uninitiated Magnetic Fields are a strange combination of New York curio quirks. The lead performer Merritt pushes a finger in is ear to deaden the sound of applause - a medical thing - but as a symbol of the band's reluctance to conform to a norm of pop music it is telling.
More a recital than a gig they are a mandolin, a piano, a cello, am acoustic guitar and drafted in singer Shirley Simms who begins the night with the ironic yet bitter paean to axe attacks California Girls.
So the scene is set with Gonson - all Annie Hall chic and disorganisation - playing good wife to Merritt's sniped, self depreciating one liners and perhaps this would not play elsewhere but this is the home town and Magnetic Fields are in accepting company.
They run through the love song for the City - Come Back From San Francisco - which sounds like it is on the edge of shattering and Gonson offers that that tune comes from the seminal 69 Love Songs which is a hard to follow work and one that has forced the band into new directions over the past decade. The noise pop of Distortion is missing tonight and tracks are acoustic, beautiful, chipped from marble.
Old Fools is a typical example with the strings of a cello replacing feedback howls it is rendered different and softer and the snide Merritt is replaced by one heartfelt and tender. For a band that delight in playfulness the soul shows bright tonight.
The set list meanders around the newer work dipping back to include Lovers On The Moon which is shorn of its electro pop beginnings of fifteen years ago and arrives fresh and wholeheartedly. They fiddle with tracks from spin off band The Gothic Archies and as if to underline the point that this is a performance and not a gig they take a break, an interval.
I Thought I Was Your Boyfriend is plucked from quirky to quality and The Nun's Litany has vocal changed from Shirley to Stephin and raises chuckles. No chuckle, no not even the sound of a pin dropping as Stephin pours heart, soul, energy and endeavour into a breaking rendition of Papa Was A Rodeo which stands as the greatest version of any song I've heard live. Every line filled with bittersweet promise and hope for a love not lost.
There are dry eyes in the house but they are not mine.
Am encore includes a funky version of Three Way, a stripped back Claudia moving through Take Ecstacy With Me and ends on Stephin's solo rendition of The Book Of Love and the night is done.
The globe navigated and the prize priceless.