In 1997, a friend of mine made me a Magnetic Fields mix tape. In fact, its title was a slight misnomer, considering that on the tape was everything from The 6ths to Gothic Archies to Future Bible Heroes. In other words, what I had received was my friend's favorite recordings of not just The Magnetic Fields but also its songwriter, Stephin Merritt.
It was a propitious introduction to Merritt's work -- and the cassette remains one of my favorites to this day -- because it made little distinction between projects or albums, ignoring band monikers in favor of themes and musical styles. It's certainly made it easier to follow the whims of Merritt over the years, but at heart, I'm most loyal to The Magnetic Fields. In fact, perhaps no other contemporary band gets as much play on my stereo.
I didn't know what to expect on Saturday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was my first official Magnetic Fields show. (Many years ago, I saw Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson perform as a duo in Olympia, Wash.) The opera house at BAM is a splendid setting for music; probably not for heavy metal, but certainly for a band like The Magnetic Fields, which wasn't afraid to let each note and instrument possess an unadorned clarity. With the low volume at which the band played, there was a percussive quality to the songs -- the pick upon the strings, for instance -- which made the music not so much skeletal as downright bony, knees knocking together. The music was open and airy, with the urbane lyrics providing the only weight.
The band, a five-piece, set up side by side on a spare stage. Merritt is truly a brilliant and surly gnome, his voice deep and deadpan. Shirley Simms sat back and sang as if telling tales from a country porch, relaxed, anecdotal but ready to strike. And despite the fact that Gonson was under the weather -- her high notes occasionally grew thin and wavered -- she's still my favorite interpreter of Merritt's words, like a sibling hellbent on defending the family name but also wanting a little credit for being the sanest. Guitarist John Woo and cellist Sam Davol provide the most dapper and reserved vignette on stage. Perhaps because they don't sing, they possess an aloofness that provides an aesthetic respite at times.
Most of the concert was culled from the band's latest album, Realism. They played very few songs from the epic 69 Love Songs, but did include a handful of early tunes, like the melancholy and grand "All the Umbrellas of London" and the sweet-but-not-too-sweet lamentation that is "Summer Lies." The night ended with The Magnetic Fields' first single, "100,000 Fireflies," maybe one of the best pop songs of the last 25 years.
I left the concert feeling lucky that The Magnetic Fields exist. Despite a beautiful tableau and orchestral prowess, the group really does tear into you -- not with deep jabs but with paper cuts, a constant sting of humor and cynicism, wit, beauty and heartache. Despite the loveliness of the songs and the venue, you half-expect to look down at the end of the evening and realize that you've been bleeding to death.