There are few people who purport to listen to independent music that couldn’t give you a strong opinion on Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields. Whether they snatched up the classic debut pop single, “100,000 Fireflies” in 1991, were introduced to the full band (including Sam Davol, John Woo, Claudia Gonson, and Shirley Simms) that materialized later through their iconic 69 Love Songs triple album in the latter part of the decade, or never paid close attention until the 2010 documentary Strange Powers, most will have taken a stance on the band’s decidedly unique and varied approach to pop and rock. On New Year’s Eve, Stephin and co. returned to Boston, where the band formed over 20 years ago to reinforce or challenge those perceptions at Symphony Hall.
What might seem an odd venue for a band that got its start at TT the Bear’s and whose newest record, 2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea boasts song titles like “Your Girlfriend’s Face” and “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” turned out to be a solid match in aesthetics and acoustics for Magnetic Fields. The band’s live setup was almost entirely unplugged, featuring only a small synthesizer in contrast to the grand piano, harmonium, ukulele, cello, guitar, and melodica. Indeed, much of Merritt’s writing style seems informed by the type of heavily-orchestrated pop found on later Beach Boys albums or even in Van Dyke Park’s Song Cycle (with a healthy dose of musical theatre thrown in for good measure), and the giant stage and seating arrangement seemed to set the tone for a night of large-scale, upbeat performance. This all despite the frontman’s borderline-dour countenance, of course; while his lyrical range can swing in tone from bitter to sly to murderous in the breadth of an album (or even a song), Merritt’s banter with long-time writing partner Claudia Gonson reliably drew chuckles. Merritt knows the value of a well-placed quip, and in a worn baseball cap and untucked dress shirt fanned out over his khakis, our host looked more like a dad who’d just run from Casual Friday to catch the last of a Little League game than the tyrannical bandleader he is often categorized as.
The band kicked off the night with “Absolutely Cuckoo,” the first song off the first disc of the epic 69 Love Songs. Alternating every third line, Gonson, Simms, and Merritt energetically attacked the bouncing verse melody, and didn’t let up from there. A selection of over twenty-five songs followed in the ensuing hour and a half, incorporating everything from some of the band’s earliest material, like the pre-Fields “Plant White Roses” and Distant Plastic Trees’ “Josephine,” to the aforementioned “Your Girlfriend’s Face” and their latest hit single, “Andrew in Drag”. The range of the material seemed chosen to please the die-hard fans, who hung on every word (and one of whom, in the midst of “Papa Was a Rodeo,” delivered a loud, singular standing salute) and those that appeared to be less familiar with the band, alike.
Often, Merritt and Gonson’s between-song conversations turned to the venue’s reputation as a respected cultural institution, or to the G-rated nature of most First Night events (“Didn’t you get the ‘family-friendly’ talk from the staff?” “No…anyway I’d have no intention of complying with that.”) The band seemed suited to the evening’s programming regardless of their misgivings, however. Merritt’s literate, lyrical witticisms, even when verging on dirty, surely sailed over the heads of anyone who didn’t already know the songs or wasn’t paying close attention, and despite the dangerously farcical quality of a five-consecutive-kazoo interlude in “The Horrible Party,” the band’s lush instrumental interplay gave credence to the idea that theirs was a performance worth a massive and diverse celebratory crowd. That crowd didn’t fail them to remind them of this either: after an invigorating, piano-bench mounting interpretation of the once-fuzzy and dirge-like “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!,” a standing ovation, and a subsequent two-song encore, the Magnetic Fields were rewarded with shouts, cheers, and a respondent avant-pop orchestra of green plastic vuvuzelas. Happy New Year, Magnetic Fields: welcome home. – BP
Magnetic Fields – “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” at Symphony Hall by Athena Moore