A Night of Funny, Tender Music

April 5th, 2012

The Magnetic Fields – Beacon Theatre – April 4, 2012

In a 2005 interview by the Onion’s AV Club, the interviewer mentioned to Bob Mould (of Hüsker Dü and Sugar) that another interviewer had once referred to Mould as “the most depressed man in rock.” “He’s never met Stephin Merritt, obviously,” replied Mould. Merritt, the songwriter behind the Magnetic Fields, is one fascinating individual. Known for his morose bass voice and an effortlessly dry sense of humor, his onstage presence is oddly captivating. “Hello, Warsaw,” he said last night, greeting the audience packed into the Beacon Theatre, where the Magnetic Fields were playing their second of two shows.

Standing no taller than the cello to his right and donning a rainbow-colored Big Gay Ice Cream T-shirt, Merritt’s hilarious interludes between songs more than made up for his short stature. Alongside his longtime friend and pianist-singer-accomplice-band manager, Claudia Gonson, the two provided nonstop playful banter one might expect from a married couple. While the band’s songs often incorporate wit, they also contain some incredibly tender moments. And some achieve both, with Merritt’s humorous lines matched to a musical soundtrack that provides his lyrics with a sense of poignant sincerity. This was especially true during the restrained “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old,” a charmingly contemplative song about what it means to grow old.

“It’s Only Time,” played second to last during the set, is such a delicately beautiful and honest love song that it’s hard to imagine how it was written by Merritt without any accompanying tongue-in-cheek levity. It made for an interesting capstone to the performance, before the band finished off things with a cover of Merritt side project the Gothic Archies“Smile! No One Cares How You Feel.” There were, of course, also plenty of love-song vignettes of the opposite variety, including “Chicken with Its Head Cut Off,” “Boa Constrictor” and new song “Andrew in Drag.” It’s somewhere within this spectrum between the comical and emotional frankness that you’ll find the brilliance of Stephin Merritt. His ability to effortlessly dip into both of these worlds is unmatched in songwriting. And he’s not as depressed as you might think. —Dan Rickershauser

Photos courtesy of Mike Benigno |