Stephin Merritt is famous for his world-weary baritone voice and deadpan stage presence. Both were in ample evidence on Saturday night. He delivered such quips as "You can never have too many revenge fantasies," and provided short, sardonic intros to the songs: "This is a song about a dead animal" (cue "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off"), or "This is a song about a horrible, horrible town that some of you may have been to" ("Come Back From San Francisco").
After Shirley Simms sang the brief ditty "Boa Constrictor," Merritt commented, "You know, I think that's my favorite one of the 69 Love Songs." And then promptly launched into everyone else's favorite song from that album, "The Book of Love." We all sang along, quietly, during the choruses. The atmosphere was almost worshipful.
He introduced the beautifully bleak "Smoke and Mirrors" ("That's all love is / Behind the tears / Smoke and mirrors") by saying, "This is a song about love and the lack thereof," which raises two questions:
- Why hasn't Stephin Merritt written a song called "Love and the Lack Thereof"?
- Would he mind terribly if I did?
We attendees of the Oakland concert got a special treat: the normally five-person band was joined by a sixth member, accordionist Daniel Handler. Handler plays on Magnetic Fields records, but presumably his commitments as a well-known novelist (under his own name and that of Lemony Snicket) make it impossible for him to tour with the band. He lives in San Francisco, though, so he came onstage and played on several songs. Most memorably, he capered around with his accordion while Claudia Gonson sang "The Horrible Party" and Merritt played a noisy kazoo.
Gonson was a cheerful presence at the piano and the mic, singing "Reno Dakota" and "My Husband's Pied-à-Terre" with great enthusiasm and some hammy gestures. The band's other female member, Shirley Simms, played her ukulele like a trouper and tended to sing the more country-flavored numbers like "Fear of Trains," "Drive On, Driver," and (from the new album) "Goin' Back to the Country." The two women harmonized beautifully on "Plant White Roses," another sad country song.
Indeed, the all-acoustic instrumentation (cello, guitar and harmonium in addition to the aforementioned piano, accordion and uke) made clear the Magnetic Fields' debt to country and folk music, even if many of their albums draw on synth-pop. It also seemed to make the quieter moments and slow ballads more effective than the more upbeat or humorous songs. Though the witty lyrics of "Andrew in Drag" definitely made the audience laugh, the live performance felt less invigorating than the recorded version.
But what really stands out for me is the band's performance of the gorgeous "Busby Berkeley Dreams." In the album version (from 69 Love Songs), the chorus lies at the top of Stephin Merritt's vocal range, and the song gains much of its emotional power from the way his voice sounds like it could crack at any moment. Saturday night, Merritt elected to sing the chorus down an octave, which lessened its soaring sadness, and made the final note so ridiculously low that you couldn't help but giggle. Then, after the instrumental break, he sang one chorus in the original, higher octave -- and the effect was absolutely heartbreaking. And then he got so discomfited by people taking photos that he muffed the lyrics, and we got so discomfited by his discomfiture that we applauded before the song was actually over, though we knew it by heart. From the ridiculous to the sublime and back again, in the course of a three-minute pop song.