The music of Magnetic Fields conjures up images of things that are terribly old-fashioned: top hats and tails, string quartets, parlour entertainment; while bringing to the fore timeless emotions like jealousy, hate and hope. They’re not above singing about a murder plot, a cheating lover, a revenge fantasy and the velvet-swathed Olympia Theatre is the perfect setting for such middle class tales. It comes as a surprise then when the five-piece take to the stage with chief songwriter and main vocalist Stephin Merritt dressed more like a builder than a poet. Checked shirt, flat cap and hands firmly in pockets he sets the scene with the melancholy ‘I Die’. His bass voice fills the room, drawing people in like a vocal black hole, so rich and dense that it almost sucks the air out of the room, filling the audience like gorging on an entire chocolate cake washed down with a pint of Guinness. Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms take over on lead vocals for roughly every third song and they provide a light relief, the knowingly comic stylings of the girls making the audience laugh, but also making them miss Merritt and long for his return.
It’s a very static stage show, the quintet arranged like a coffee shop acoustic act with movement reduced to a minimum. Everything Merritt does is considered and deadpan, down to the brandishing of his kazoo. Almost despite himself sometimes he becomes animated and then checks himself, forcing his hands back into his pockets. The show is a curious mixture of pathos and wit, songs falling into two categories: One being the laugh-out-loud comedy song with the clever rhymes and often abrupt punchline denouement, usually sang by the girls; ‘My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre’ being the perfect example. Many songs are simply throwaway pop, two minute songs that could have been created at a drunken party at 4am.
Of course, all this joking around distracts from the heart of the matter; that there is actually serious songwriting at work here. Different genres are experimented with, the girls changing their voices to country drawls here and there, the ukulele lightening moods and bringing a bluegrass edge to some songs, an edge that is expanded upon by some very clever female harmonies and guitar picking. In fact, the ladies are the unsung heroes of the night, providing subtle, well-judged echoes here and there – most notably to ‘All My Little Words’ – adding just enough harmonies to add depth, but not enough to overpower Merritt.
The second category is harder to pin down but can be defined by the pin-drop silence of the audience, each member leaning forward in their seat to hear something small they might miss in these tragically sincere tales of woe. Often stripped down to ukulele and vocals every subtle nuance is heard. Most significantly, these songs last beyond the usual two minute curfew the band seem to have imposed on themselves. They don’t fear repetition of a chorus because a surprise punchline is not the objective; the objective is to create a piece of music that develops with each repetition, the strange dark beauty of the cello adding a sinister edge to lyrics and a voice that already drip with menace.
A curious affair, all in all. Laughs were had, but the moments that will likely stay with the audience are the mesmerizing stillness created by ‘The Book Of Love’ and the unexpected strength of Merritt’s voice live. It is only as the we begin to leave that the realisation hits that there were no drums at any point during the performance. They were not missed.
Photos: Paulo Goncalves