“Elves,” offers Stephin Merrit, pretty much out of the blue, and leaves the word with us, hanging in the air.
Eventually he finishes the thought: he’s considering writing a musical, with songs featuring elves. This might help fill out the list of songs featuring fairies that they were compiling, suggests pianist Claudia Gonson, but she questions if elf songs would really count as fairy songs. The name of this masterpiece would be Elves! with an exclamation point. but unfortunately they have already reserved this idea for their musical version of the Silence of the Lambs: Silence!
The Magnetic Fields are holding court in the Cork Opera House on a particularly blustery Sunday night. A reduced Katie Kim threepiece had warmed the audience up earlier with a forty minute set of pared down songs from the LPs Cover & Flood and Twelve. The songs shed their more experimental edges for tonight’s show, yet this exposed how strong the songwriting is, as the simple accompaniment of cello, keyboards and a little clarinet worked well to complement Katie’s guitar and vocal. It was a prim and proper set from Katie, and it was executed flawlessly.
Warmed up we may be, but when they take the stage The Magnetic Fields are hardly in the same boat, as Claudia and Stephin come swaddled in bobble hats, fleeces and scarves, with a steaming hot cup of tea in hand. It looks like they caught some of that icy wind blowing down the Lee tonight.
Ensconcing himself behind his table with his bank of equipment, Merrit seems very comfortable, and has many toys to play with, including a harmonium, recorder, lyric stand, kazoos, and even a synth buried in there somewhere. But despite their history of synthing it up, this is very much an acoustic show, with upright piano, ukelele, guitar and cello carrying most of the parts. They crack straight in with a mix of songs from 69 Love Songs and their latest LP Love at the Bottom of the Sea. ‘I Die’ opens proceedings with its lush warm cello, and the pace picks up with ‘Chicken With Its Head Cut Off’. After this we get ‘Your Girlfriend’s Face’, the first of several songs tonight from their latest album. It’s clear from this song that Merrit’s lyrical abilities remain intact: he is still able to mix humour with themes of dejection, loneliness and horror. The sound tonight is great, and the lyrics ring clear around the Opera House.
“So I’ve taken a contract out on you / I have hired a hitman to do what they do / He will do his best to do his worst / After he’s messed up your girlfriend first.”
This song is recorder and ukelele driven, those much maligned instruments. But they work in this context, I believe, because they are treated with respect: they play important parts within the overall instrumentation. They are not just tacked on as an afterthought. Merrit must be forging the way in rehabilitating such lesser instruments – he will even attempt to play a range of kazoos seriously later (if that’s truly his aim, he fails amidst the audience giggles, but I don’t think that’s truly his aim).
Between songs, Gonson and Merrit, at either end of the stage, converse easily with the audience and each other, with the other players saying very little really. (It’s enough, as Gonson has plenty to say, and is almost as funny as Merrit’s deadpan delivery.) They tell us tales of couples shagging in the balcony of a previous gig in their hometown, Boston; while Merrit brings the geography. “The Grand Canyon”, he tells us slowly, in his laconic, bored teacher voice, “is a vast crack in the earth”. He pauses. “That’s right – a vast crack.” When he sings, his deep register and unwavering voice gives the music a classical feel, like Leo Kottke or Neil Hannon do when they sing. But speaking, he could hardly be funnier if he were curly haired American deadpan comic Stephen Wright.
And that is the surprise of the night, that their humour and wit flows out of their songs, beyond knowing references and in jokes; and as they eventually shed some of their extra woolly layers, you realise these are warm people, and they eagerly share their humour with the audience in a very inclusive way.
We get over two dozen songs tonight, which would be a phenomenal amount from most bands, but Magnetic Fields songs are generally done and dusted after two and a half minutes. Anything longer would count as an epic. Most of the songs unsurprisingly come from their voluminous 1999 album 69 Love Songs, but other albums are represented tonight with one or two songs – ‘Singing London’ from Holiday, ‘You Must Be Out of Your Mind’ from Realism, ‘Fear of Trains’ from The Charm of the Highway Strip, and ‘Plant White Roses’ from their 1991 debut album Distant Plastic Trees.
I don’t have any great sense of history with this group, and so have no emotional connections to worry about skewing my perception; and for my money, the songs off their new album are as good as or better than those from any other part of their career. ‘Quick’, with uke player Shirley singing, is a chiming catchy number; ‘Andrew in Drag’, meanwhile, has the place smiling again with its tale of an erstwhile ladies man pining for a lady man: “A pity she does not exist, a shame he’s not a fag. The only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag.” Or the wife’s tale of woe in ‘My husband’s Pied-A-Terre’: “It’s a place more women stay / Than the YWCA / Go there once, you get the key/ So every girl’s been there but me”.
While the whole set is really solid, it’s clear they never stray far from their admittedly winning formula of three minute pop songs, lush arrangement, sparkling melodies, and confident witty lyrics that would give the Smiths or Belle and Sebastian a run for their money. Sometimes the song is over too soon, just when you are getting into it. But somehow, the songs are perfectly crafted – they could not use a second more. And Merrit’s ability is to stop it at the right moment, before the good idea gets in any way threadbare. There are smiles aplenty leaving the gig, and I’m sure the Opera House will be top of the list to host the debut performance of Elves! the Musical.