I should preface this post with how I got into the Magnetic Fields, because it is a very Stephen Merritt-appropriate story.
During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college I was stuck in my hometown in PA after a 3-week trip to Ireland where I blew all my money on booze, shopping, food, and oh, well, more booze. In order to pay off the credit card bill I had accrued, I had to go back and live at home and work in a discount basket store, The Basket Case. It resembled a mid-western basement of a dead woman’s home–all cobwebs and faded decorative wreathes and dusty silk flowers. I spent five days a week trapped in a dungeon of twine, haggled by tourists. My only companions were my substance-addled coworkers: a creepy Phishhead from New Jersey who would caress my arm all the time and beg me to come out and “smoke the Herb” with him on the Delaware River (hello date rape) and an 80-year-old alcoholic who would put whiskey in her coffee cup during lunch. I spent most of that summer getting drunk with my friend Zach at my dad’s house after work, occasionally falling, in an inebriated stupor, over the cats I was “sitting” while my dad was away at his boyfriend’s house.
One of the few things that brightened this time was my correspondence with a lovely, sexually ambiguous film major from college who wrote me letters and sent me vaguely romantic things. One of these things was a mix tape (a real mix tape, remember those?) of Magnetic Fields/Stephen Merritt songs. What better music to listen to than Merritt’s irony-thick songs of love and disappointment? The basket store only had a tape player, so it was perfect to lighten my mood (or drown my misery in, same difference) during those long boring days. Also, it pissed off the hippie, who complained this “wack shit” sounded like, “gay space music.”
Ok, back to 2008: accompanied by Gina (of PFS, graduate secretary, and professional blogging fame) we walked into Town Hall, to witness a truly bizarre opening act. I still can’t find out what it was, despite extensive Googling. We came in a few minutes late, so we missed their introduction. If anyone can tell me, I’d really appreciate it. I can’t find their name anywhere! I can only describe it as three guys on stage with some sound effects, an accordion, and a spoken word piece that sounded like a child’s story crossed with Kakfa’s The Metaphorphosis (there was a creature named Gregor), executed in an uncomfortably rapid fashion.
However, that bizarre spectacle didn’t last long. The Magnetic Fields were right on schedule, going on around 8:45 pm. They played for about an hour, took an intermission and went on for another hour or so. Wow! Worth my 30 bucks… over two hours of music! All in all, it was quite a night—an experience! Merritt was mumbly and deadpan, Claudia was giddy and droll, and the song selection was a wonderful retrospective of songs from the past and present (even featuring a 6ths song, “Give Me Back My Dreams”). I’ve posted the set-list here (which I took from Brooklyn Vegan, which also features a hilarious string of posts that allude to the absurd possibility of Merritt being in, uh, the Jesus and Mary Chain???). I wasn’t taking notes the whole time, but it looks pretty accurate.
Last night’s set-list :
I Don’t Believe You
All My Little Words
Come Back From San Francisco
Walking My Gargoyle
Too Drunk To Dream
Till The Bitter End
The Night You Can’t Remember
I Thought You Were My Boyfriend
Lover From the Moon
I Wish I Had an Evil Twin
Give Me Back My Dreams
Papa Was A Rodeo
Drive On, Driver
The Nun’s Litany
The Tiny Goat
Smoke and Mirrors
Take Ecstasy With Me
The Book of Love
The most salient aspect of the show, is that for a band (and the prime guiding force behind it, Mr. Merritt) that has defined a great deal of its work by its electronic stylings (often cosmic; sometimes even disco-y), meticulous arrangement, and fuzzy vocal distortion (which is nicely showcased on the appropriately named new album Distortion), the music lost absolutely nothing in the acoustic execution. The simplicity and superb musicianship of this stripped down set was no less breathtaking than their highly produced albums.
I realized as they were going into “Take Ecstasy with Me” during the encore, that perhaps this is the true test of a greatness in terms of songwriting: when work is distilled to its basic components and the quality remains not merely intact, but sounds even better, shedding further light on the power of the work. The New York Times review of Thursday’s show (I saw the second in a 4-night series of shows at Town Hall) conveyed disappointment about this approach (“Taking the cacophony out of the new songs didn’t ruin them, but it did pull them back into a familiar zone. For anyone with lofty hopes that the Magnetic Fields would stretch their music, the usual refinement was a little bit of a letdown”). Contrary to the Times’ review, I found it refreshing that a band who pushes the limits of sound experimentation within the pop paradigm can still prove that they are extraordinary musicians in the traditional sense as well.
And since this is a long post about a show you may not have seen, well, my reward to you is a free music smattering of some of what they played. Apparently free music is a draw. So I give you Mr. Merritt’s wonderful music, including !!!’s deliriously good cover of “Take Ecstasy with Me.” Enjoy!
Lovers from the Moon (a very old favorite)