“Similarly, here’s another song about miserable death,” Stephen Merritt drolly informed us between songs. Merritt and his Magnetic Fields, as you may know, are famous for three things: 1) Merritt’s prolific songwriting nature, revealing itself in high-concept projects like 1999’s 69 Love Songs, 2) his lugubriously low voice, which with tonight’s acoustic (and non-electronic) accompaniment often made the band sound like, oh, say, Simon & Garfunkel fronted by Peter Steele from Type O Negative, and 3) Merritt’s predilection for witty, acerbic, and ironic lyrical observations of the down sides of existence. On record, these jaunty tunes about dying, depression, and not getting what one wants can lift one’s spirits with their friction between sound and meaning — but live, it’s a trickier situation.
This is because Merritt is a sly dog, and it is oh-so-hard to tell whether, with a song, a lyric (or really, with anything), if he really “means it.” So often we see performers belt out the most inane lyrics as if their life truly depended on it, attempting to convince us that their heart really will go on, or something to that effect. Merritt (with vocal accompaniment from longtime Field and manager Claudia Gonson, as well as the country-tinged Shirley Simms) manages to hide everything behind a certain artifice, be it smirking irony (as on one of his catalog’s smuttier tunes, like the lascivious “Nun’s Litany”) or the deadpan croon he gives to laments and love songs alike. The effect can be boggling: do we laugh? Do we get choked up? Merritt never shows his hand.
The bulk of the material tonight was pulled from their most recent, Nonesuch disc, Realism (although the band also lavished us with a glut of numbers from the 1994 oddity The Charm of the Highway Strip). It was awesome when they lilted through biting tracks like “From a Sinking Boat” and “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” but not so much when they dragged us kicking and screaming through genre exercises like the über-twee “The Dolls’ Tea Party” and the nonsensical hoedown of “We Are Having a Hootenanny.”
Of course, most of the evening’s drama came not from the songs, but from the tense humor between Merritt and Gonson. Merritt, ever attempting to sustain an icy distance between the his songs and his own person, was continually interrupted by Gonson’s giddy verbal spasms, often delaying the start of a song until a particular anecdote could be completed — one particularly prickly (and extended) back-and-forth occurring during the encore when Gonson pontificated on what she didn’t like about the Who’s Super Bowl performance. Revealingly, Gonson remarked that they were playing a much larger gig in Brooklyn in a few nights, and that they’d be much more serious for that show — and thank goodness we got to catch them in such giddy moods. If we were a little lost as to how seriously to take all of this, it was reassuring to follow their lead.