London South Bank Queen Elizabeth Hall

Capriciousness, cruelty and cavalier wit...

What a swell party it’s been. With a closing rendition of ‘Busby Berkeley Dreams’, Stephin Merritt giving the merest hint of a dance as he steps around the stage and Claudia Gonson playing out the end credits on piano, it’s over. We collect our hats and wraps from the pretty but brittle coat-check boy, light a cigarette, and disappear into the night to have our hearts broken – but oh! how elegantly – by someone with to-die-for eyes and a clever turn of phrase. [I]Bon nuit, cherie, bon nuit[/I]…

In musicals, of course, everything always pans out fine. The sun shines, the Technicolor glows and a judicious costume change into something less comfortable and very possibly feathered takes away the pain. For Stephin Merritt, however, everyday life is a big production number; his beautiful, meticulous songs scoring the music found in between those things that are said and those things that are thought. In keeping with their precise emotional choreography, The Magnetic Fields – tonight Merritt, Gonson, bassist John Woo and cellist Sam Devole – offer a rarefied divertissement, wine glasses adorning the piano, cigarette smoke spiralling against black curtain.

Stephin, who could fit inside a Fabergi egg, curls up on a high stool to sing, and the stage gradually fills up with a matinie bouquet of metaphors and perspectives. The ukelele wryness of ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like’; the rumbustious rhumba romp of ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits’; the angostura bitters brilliance of duet ‘Yeah! Oh Yeah!’; Claudia‘s voice cracking like a crystal decanter on the Sondheim hysterics of ‘Reno Dakota’: each song offers endless inventiveness, dazzling precision.

It’s difficult to carry off such consciously erudite wit without seeming as if you’re entirely made of eyebrows and smugness, yet nothing comes over as patronising. This is the arch de triomphe – silvered wit with a heart of gold, only too clever by half for bands twice as stupid. The Magnetic Fields, though, touch a chord, rather than showing off their musical notation.

“The book of love is long and boring”, intones Stephin, voice a perfect blend of disappointment and expectation, and everyone laughs. “I love it when you read to me”. ‘Papa Was A Rodeo’ (“Mama was a rock’n’roll band”) might be pastiche, but it’s a delicate, hand-stitched replica, every Nashville sequin a labour of love. For the faintly Gallic duet ‘Night I Can’t Forget’, a tale of Parisian army officers and Madame Butterfly-like betrayal, Stephin sways gently round the stage with a wine glass, apologising at the end for the references to France and aeroplanes given the recent disaster. Claudia looks appalled. “Sorry,” he shrugs. “That was in bad taste. But it’s not our fault.” Pause. “It’s your fault.”

Capriciousness, cruelty and cavalier wit – these have long been some of the master songwriter’s favourite virtues. Yet aware that happy endings are all too rare, Stephin Merritt knows sometimes, it’s kind to be cruel. His might not be the plain truth, but under such guises and veils, it rarely meets your eye more alluringly.