Sitting in the chilly stillness of the Berklee Performance Center on Friday night was much like sitting in the April air of some European plaza (minus, of course, the wine and casual laughter). While lyric-lovers sunk into their cushy chairs, holding new copies of MAGNETIC FIELDS' vinyls in the dark, the salty strains of DEVOTCHKA’s Nick Urata floated over the tranquil space. This Catalonian image couldn’t have been hurt by the old-world inflections of DeVotchka’s slimmed-down trio-work (normally the Denver-based group works as a bigger ensemble), featuring not only Urata’s blustery acoustic guitar and dramatic vocals, but also Shawn King’s electro-acoustic drums/trumpet and Tom Hagerman’s sympathic violin. Dressed in black and stoic in the stage’s shadows, the men from DeVotchKa worked the crowd like a celebrant’s serenade; romantic, yes, but just somber enough to hold praise for the Magnetic Fields, who prepared backstage to kick-off a two night stand in Boston in support of their latest release, Love and the Bottom of the Sea.
As the Magnetic Fields took their places on the stage, it was like watching a zany gang of misfits who have finally figured out how to take their place in this insane music business -— and according to their terms. Clown-prince Stephin Merritt held down stage-right in a scarf and an ivy cap—like a lecturer on forgotten love songs behind a podium. In fact he actually did sit behind a lectern of sorts, fashioned to support an accordion which appeared to be built into a wooden box (so that he could reach around and pump it from the back), a melodica that played with a tube and a number of assorted kazoos and noise-makers—all this to avoid using the synthesizers used on the record.
Meanwhile at stage-left sat long-time Merritt collaborator/foil Claudia Gonson at a grand piano, wool-capped and tennis-shoed, like erstwhile doppelganger Laura Nyro on her way to the grocery store. Between the two, vocalist/8-string ukulele player Shirley Simms sat upon a stool, followed by the uber-brilliant John Woo hunched with his acoustic guitar and finally the mad-haired Sam Davol perched at his cello. Watching how perfect and randomly assorted the Magnetic Fields looked (and sounded) together, it was hard not to believe that they exist only for the miracle that they were able to find each other.
While Love at the Bottom of the Sea might not be one of the better Magnetic Fields albums, it does provide some tracks that provide evidence of Mr. Merritt’s melodic gift—such as in the sing-songy “Andrew in Drag,” itself presented with bubble-gum aplomb in this acoustic setting. In fact, many of the songs on Love were significantly less flat in this forum, such as “Your Girlfriends Face” and “Going Back to the Country”—both sung by Shirley Simms, also both examples of the two basic emotions that the Magnetic Fields’ music invokes: humor and sadness.
“I'm going back to the country / City life's too slow,” sang Simms with more than a touch of confidence in her battled but sweet country-voice, “I'm sick of that 120 BPM funk and disco.” The Magnetic Fields are more than just older and wiser 20-years into their career; they know who they are and what makes them happy (or miserable). It’s okay to not like dance clubs! It is this kind of awareness that makes us laugh when we meet them.
For the next 25 songs or so, Merritt and company dissected our hearts like they dissected their oft-synthy songs and rearranged them for a chamber-pop ensemble. “Smoke and Mirrors” from 1995’s Get Lost never sounded better than in this set up, and nor especially did “Swinging London” from 1994’s Holiday. To say that Gonson and Woo weren’t killing it on the piano and guitar would be crime, really, as the Magnetic Fields’ music sparkled in the super audio-tweaked Berklee room. Merritt was sour, staged, and especially funny. Before “Swinging London” he told a story of how he watched an old print of Antonioni’s Blow Up that was completely magenta, and then went through his life thinking of London as a magenta place (made perfect sense in the context of that song). Simultaneously croaking and soaring, the curmudgeon of pop took his greatest songs—such as “Busby Berkeley Dreams” and “The Book of Love,” both from his 1999 opus 69 Love Songs—from the most comical of his depths to the most desperate of his heights. It was worth being lectured to.
The Magnetic Fields prove, that no matter how the music is composed, good musicians can bring it to life with any combination of instruments. And the distinction of electro-elements and natural-elements really is a silly one, especially when you are dealing with magnets.