The Magnetic Fields


MOJO Magazine / Lead live review

Fairytale of New York
Magnetic Fields
BAM, New York

They don’t have panto in America at Christmas. But then, with the President-elect currently residing in Trump Tower and small civil wars being battled up and down the land, the national stage is already heaving with villains, plus a few brave heroes. Theatrics of a subtler kind, however, are playing out over these two nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a resplendent old theatre and culture hub that’s a safe distance away from Manhattan’s noise and nonsense. 

Magnetic Fields mainstay Stephin Merritt is no stranger to drama, and his new oeuvre *50 Song Memoir* casts him as a chansonnier – a Tom Lehrer, Jake Thackray, occasionally Serge Gainsbourg, for our time. Given that Merritt’s best-known work is 1999’s glorious, format-challenging collection *69 Love Songs*, it’s not entirely surprising that he’s chosen to celebrate his 50th birthday in equally ambitious style: *50 Song Memoir* comprises a song for every year of Merritt’s life, encompassing accounts of his wayward hippy mother, his teenage ashram rock band, surreal LA years (and concomitant contempt for surfing), love of New York snow, hatred of New York snow, repeated heartbreak and… Oh, we’ll not give the ending away yet. Suffice to say, this is a big project, grander yet for being presented as a full-scale theatre piece. And of course, funnier and more tender yet for being presented by a man of such a resolutely Eeyorish demeanor. 

The literary, left-leaning crowd at BAM adore Stephin Merritt, such that there is probably no venue more ideally suited to this show. Pleasingly solid and wearing an expression of someone under sustained mild duress, Merritt walks onstage carefully, bringing a hand up to his left ear when the applause gets too loud (a medical condition results in feedback at loud volumes). He perches himself on a stool in the middle of an elaborate, rather gorgeous set that could double as Doris Day’s attic, crammed as it is with doll’s houses, stuffed toys (“Hootie the owl,” Merritt notes) and playground instruments that each get their turn during the performance.

A sweet ukulele amble, I Wonder Where I’m From, opens the show, its apparent guilelessness the more appealing given the scope of what’s to follow. “Yes, I was young once,” says Merritt, with the wry charm of Sideshow Bob in *belles lettres* mode. Regarding the historical accuracy of his stories, Merritt notes that “autobiography need not be the same thing as truth”, before launching into a jolly, cautionary cha-cha-cha about being reincarnated as a cockroach while a giant, bug-strewn Tibetan Buddhist Wheel Of Life spins above the stage. In a boomy, portentous baritone, our narrator then sings of a family cat named Dionysis (“every day another crisis”), his evocations of childhood a modern-day sonic match for the dark charm of Edward Gorey’s illustrations.

Ideas around the frailty of belief systems weave their way through 50 Song Memoir; via Merritt’s experiences of love, loyalty and trust, and also via numerous encounters with spiritual kooks, as on the glorious hymnal, No: “Is there a man in heaven looking out for you? Is there a place that loved ones go?” sings Merritt, “Is there a source of wisdom that will see you through? Will there be peace in our time?” The answer comes in emphatic, delighted chorus: “No!” Here, UFOs, communism, fairies and ghosts are called into question, but Merritt’s spiritual fatigue finds its source most notably at his mother’s (moveable) doorstep. That there is more than a trace of filial ire in the set is hardly surprising given that the young Merritt was hauled around 33 different places over 22 years.

Merritt’s New Romantic-obsessed teen years follow, a chunk of echoey synth outings which entertain (how could a fantasy about flying around with John Foxx not?) even if they don’t excite quite as much as the shonky tapestry of Merritt’s childhood, and Memoirs’ opening night concludes with a ZX Spectrum-style take on acid house, Dreaming In Tetris. 

Night two begins with the splendidly weird song, The Day I Finally Snap, a mostly a capella ditty punctuated by clicks, claps, kids’ instruments and, eventually, a man-walks-into-a-doctor’s-office joke involving a naked man and clingfilm, told by multi-instrumentalist Pinky Weitzman.

Every non-native New Yorker has a fairytale about the city to tell, usually involving poverty, insects and idealism, and Stephin Merritt is no exception; but the mature, sad-in-NYC songs of night two are among Memoirs’ loveliest moments. Fathers In The Clouds suggests Merritt’s Future Bible Heroes channelling the Smiths’ Please, Please, Please; sad waltz The Ghosts of Marathon Dancers gathers one up in a gentle, sad sweep; and the love song to wintry New York, Have You Seen It In The Snow, is a bodega bouquet to a shabby, proud and deeply romantic city, the more profound for being debuted in Brooklyn at Christmas.

Merritt’s six years in LA make for an enjoyable, sensual romp, but the call of New York proves too much to resist – evident in the cheery calypso You Can Never Go Back To New York;  and the evening’s penultimate song is an unguarded, sweetly sentimental number entitled I Wish I Had Pictures, which conjours the Beatles’ In My Life.

But Merritt, for all his apparent recalcitrance, chooses to go out with a bang, not a whimper, and so the show culminates with Everybody Is Somebody’s Fetish, a playful, penny whistle-accompanied celebration of sexual idiosyncrasy which suggests a Sesame Street song for curious adults. “Some spank the maid, some wank the valet” croons Merritt, everyone laughs, and you could get so carried away with the joy of the song and the neon sexplay graphics on the screen that you might miss Merritt singing, “And I, even I, with my wildebeest’s face… Even for me has Cupid found a place.” Then, “Here at the end I have written this song for you.” It’s a beautiful, hopeful way to end a globally miserable year, and for that, a standing ovation is thoroughly deserved.

MOJO_LeadLive MAGFIELDS_kcgb (Low-res PDF)