The Magnetic Fields at Somerville Theatre, February 14, 2008
DUST GETS IN YOUR EYES: Songs of
heartbreak and punishment were the order of
St. Valentine’s Day for the Magnetic Fields.
Here are some of the things nobody who was at the Somerville Theatre on Valentine’s Day was thinking about: dinner by candlelight, champagne, heart-shaped chocolates, a peek-a-boo negligee. Well, maybe that last one when the Magnetic Fields, fronted by the so-gloomy-it’s-funny Stephin Merritt, delivered a stripped-down, if you will, rendition of “The Nun’s Litany.” On the band’s new album, Distortion (Nonesuch), it’s sung by the sweet-voiced Shirley Simms, but on stage Merritt relegated her to the background as he catalogued a nun’s fantasized alternative career paths: topless waitress, porno starlet, brothel worker. On what drummer/keyboardist Claudia Gonson matter-of-factly referred to as “Lonely Hearts Night,” cheeky fantasy was snuffed out by songs of heartbreak and punishment. Moreover, Gonson announced, Merritt had a tummy ache from dinner at Porter Exchange. (“So don’t fuck with me,” he warned.)
Merritt, his face shadowed by a hat brim but not enough that you couldn’t see him scowl, strummed the mandolin-like bouzouki, delivering barbed lyrics that made love seem as reasonable as obtaining a dust sample from Neptune. And the crowd relished every painful word. Call it schadenfreude. Or chalk it up to the gentle sparring among the band members that made the crowd feel like voyeurs peering in on their private space.
Merritt is known for his hyperacusis, an oversensitivity to sound that may explain why the songs from Distortion were played without the gauzy feedback that explains the album’s title. Sam Davol’s resonant cello gave a chamber-music intimacy to the material. The catty “California Girls” and “Too Drunk To Dream” (a wry endorsement of booze-bolstered self-confidence) had the sound of gently ambling, twangy, riding-in-a-pick-up-after-midnight ballads, the kind that almost make you feel the dust from the road — not Neptune — blowing into your eyes.
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