Stephin Merrit's wry tales of love and loss remain as exquisite as ever...
Sssshhh! Consummate indie icon Stephin Merrit is onstage and reverence shall be upheld. Smirking and tittering is strictly limited to the purpose of applauding Merrit’s driest and wryest one-liners. Heckling will not be tolerated in any form. Not that any of the crammed Magnetic Fields faithful would dare perforate the scholarly pop atmosphere set by Merrit and his accompanying trio.
Resembling some sort of droll lonely hearts club band – with melancholy enhanced by the richly mournful recipe of banjo, piano and ukulele (suitably, the drollest of instruments) – they embark on a set almost entirely dedicated to last year’s ambitious triple CD compendium of gay love and Broadway blues, ’69 Love Songs’. But it would unfair to label Merrit purely as a purveyor of misery when his songs are, clearly, tenderly conceived, if not pierced through the heart with self-effacing wit. Each tune is a short, bittersweet smack of crafted melody, carried audaciously by Merrit’s baritone croon.
Comparisons to Neil Hannon are fair, in so much as Merrit harbours a similar appreciation of baroque elegance, literary pomp and no small amount of irony, but he takes those notes to a deeper, incomparable plateau.
‘Absolutely Cuckoo’ is a joyously fluttering one-minute-thirty-second warning of an obsessive heart. Pianist Claudia Gorson steps up to coo angelically over the sparse banjo hypnosis of ‘Reno Dakota’. ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like’ is Merrit at his jocose best and an indictment of his often giddy approach to pop: “A melody is like a pretty girl/ Who cares if it’s the dumbest in the world/ It’s all about the way that it unfurls”.
He also finds space for a couple of tunes from last year’s ‘Hyacinths And Thistles’ album by The Sixths, a project whereby other notable pop vaudevillians such as Momus, Marc Almond, Gary Numan and the aforementioned
Hannon perform Merrit’s songs. Gorson replaces Sarah Cracknell on the delicious ‘Kissing Things’, almost as convincing in her delivery of such desperately romantic lines as “I’ve been kissing this bottle wishing it was you”.
Amusingly, the irony takes on a new level on ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits’, which applies a similar melody as Rod Stewart’s ‘Some Guys Have All The Luck’, not an artist you’d immediately equate with Stephin Merrit. Otherwise, tonight was an impressive, if not a little too precious, affair.