The Magnetic Fields
By Andrew Hall | 18 April 2012
I approached seeing the Magnetic Fields again with trepidation, and for what I believe to be good reasons. One: this year’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea is probably Stephin Merritt’s weakest record, and a substantive bummer given the hype surrounding his return to Merge and his decision to work again with synthesizers. His songs have reached a point at which they seem so calculated that they border on being conceptual jokes, exercises in structure and wordplay for the sake of those things rather than a human or emotional connection of any kind, than they do songs at this point, with their best melodies given over to Shirley Simms because Merritt seems to no longer care about fronting his band. Neither Distortion (2008) nor Realism (2010) hit the highs of his mid-‘90s run, but for every few contrivances that failed, there seemed to be one that worked; “The Nun’s Litany” (especially in live performances, where Merritt did the right thing and sang it himself) and “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind” practically redeem everything accompanying them.
Two: Magnetic Fields performances have historically been displays of unpleasant passive aggression where I’ve felt more than slightly uncomfortable. When I saw them in 2008, the songs from Distortion were given much-needed context when presented without the titular effect, but Merritt’s accompanists, especially cellist Sam Davol and guitarist John Woo, appeared afraid of their leader as pianist and manager Claudia Gonson engaged Merritt in catty back and forths that almost always ended in his insistence that she start the song already. I felt like I’d gotten what there was to get, with little else that I could possibly take from seeing them again.
Three: the Neptune has been in my experience the worst venue in Seattle. First off, there’s security, which ignores the convenience of stamps or wristbands in favor of forcing one to show their ID literally every time they enter the bar area, as well as making no water available to people in their all-ages section. Then there’s the fact that bad sound sucked all joy out of sets from Julianna Barwick, Okkervil River, Sonny and the Sunsets, and St. Vincent for me—St. Vincent so much so that I’ve more or less had zero desire to listen to her music since watching her and her band suffer from latency problems, awful guitar tone, and a general feeling of being out of sync to the point of no return—and I tend to want to feel that way about musicians whose work I admire as rarely as possible.
Surprisingly, almost all of my concerns seemed to have been addressed in some form another. While the Neptune has yet to figure out how to make their ID situation less annoying (and, in their defense, they might not be able to given how fucked up and stupid liquor laws are, and it is more important that they make shows they run all-ages, which they do), they have gotten their sound down. Though the last time I saw Bachelorette, opening for Bill Callahan at a bowling alley in Kennewick, Washington, she performed with a full band, Annabel Alpers’ set opening this show was largely a laptop-and-voice affair. Picking up a guitar as needed but mostly opting instead to work with what appeared to be a Tenori-On like device to trigger and manipulate waveforms, Alpers’ voice filled the space nicely through the songs across her ever-growing discography as the Magnetic Fields’ unsurprisingly well-behaved audience trickled in, showcasing her singing far more than anything else.
And Merritt was remarkably well-behaved himself, coming across almost as if he’s found a surrogate to replace him given his notorious dislike of live performance. Suddenly sporting a full beard and no longer playing any stringed instruments as part of their live set (ukulele has been given over to Simms, leaving him to play melodica, harmonium, and whatever other toys he feels like using to dress his songs up), he seemed to have traded his characteristic unchanging frown for a more neutral expression that gave way to smiles and laughter as he and Gonson talked about how the word “exit,” read left-to-right, contained viable two letter words all the way across in Scrabble and how he was the only singer in the band who hadn’t developed laryngitis on tour.
The new album was relegated, thankfully, to only a handful of songs, and they did elicit more laughs than anything else; Merritt made a kazoo blare aggressively during the chorus of “The Horrible Party,” derailing whatever else was happening in those moments, Gonson’s voice practically gave out during “My Husband’s Pied-A-Tièrre,” and “Your Girlfriend’s Face” prompted chuckles from the first utterance of “ba ba ba crystal meth.” The older songs were the same fairly straightforward recital renditions that one would expect, given that the band’s live configuration—piano, cello, acoustic guitar, ukulele, or bouzouki—hasn’t changed for almost a decade, but as one would expect, Merritt’s excellent melodies still sounded as gorgeous and slyly heartfelt as they do when backed by the tinny, synth and drum machine-heavy production on their albums.
What made the evening so palatable, more than anything else, was Merritt’s change in attitude. While I would’ve likened the past Magnetic Fields sets I’ve seen to a hatefuck, watching a remarkably talented individual do something he doesn’t want to do because someone has more or less forced him to do it, Merritt’s newfound willingness to at least fake enthusiasm has done wonders for his watchability. And getting to hear his increasingly gravel-tinged baritone sing “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” or “The Book of Love,” or to realize for how many people “Come Back From San Francisco,” means something has a certain quality to it that’s worth celebrating. Whether or not Merritt’s career from this point on will be worth following is another question entirely, but for now, it’s safe to say that he’s in some sort of transition; perhaps he’s even moving from someone who’s more worth seeing than whose new records are worth eagerly awaiting.