The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir, Barbican, review – an enchanting night with one of pop's greatest oddballs

Stephen Merritt onstage at the Barbican - Redferns
Stephen Merritt onstage at the Barbican - Redferns

Stephin Merritt is an unassuming treasure of pop. For 28 years, the Boston-born singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has been ploughing his diverse, ambitious and wilfully deadpan furrow as The Magnetic Fields. He’s a great in the lineage of American indie oddballs from Jonathan Richman to They Might Be Giants (the closest reference point this side of the Atlantic is probably the irreverent chamber pop of The Divine Comedy).

Merritt is the bookish music fan’s musician, beloved by critics and peers, but largely unknown by the masses. Happily, a lack of commercial pressure gives Merritt licence to manoeuvre in whichever majestic or barmy ways he desires. Enter his latest project, 50 Song Memoir, a five-album suite of musical theatre with a vignette for each of his years.

At this, the enchanting first of two Barbican shows – the final leg of a 10-date UK tour – Merritt performed the first half of his life. He opened with the languid baroque pop of Wonder Where I’m From, the rich glow of the music setting a tone which was mirrored by the warmth of the Wes Anderson-style pastel pink living room set, filled with kitsch ephemera such as toy chests and stuffed owls.

The Magnetic Fields - Credit: Redferns
Credit: Redferns

On the album, Merritt played over 100 instruments. Here, he stuck mainly to the ukulele, myriad xylophone variants and the guitar, while his seven-piece backing band navigated their way through a clutter of keyboards, percussion, strings, brass, synths, wind chimes, singing saws and even a hybrid saxophone-violin.

Despite the inherent unfussiness in Merritt’s nursery-rhymish melodies, the busyness and variety of the orchestration behind him meant no two songs sounded quite alike. He flitted seamlessly between genres, from the Mariachi lilt of Come Back as A Cockroach to the restless lo-fi noise of Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life, and the synth-pop stomp of Danceteria! Everything was artfully hung together by Merritt’s trademark baritone, by turns forlorn, sardonic or passionate.

Magnetic Fields - Credit: Redferns
Credit: Redferns

“I usually hate writing autobiograpical songs, but autobiography need not be the same thing as truth,” he claimed early on, and yet these songs seemed at times agonisingly personal, with references to his “flaky” Beatnik mother, her succession of “jerk” boyfriends, and an itinerant childhood which took him to Hawaii, Vermont and Boston. Between songs, he traded witheringly dry one liners (“yes, I was young once”, “this is my contribution to the teenage lament genre") suffused with additional candour about his life.

While there were a few trivial misses, such as closer Dreaming in Tetris, the overall song quality was remarkably high; the magnificent Foxx and I was a clear highlight, with Merritt sounding like Morrissey singing the Human League.

Merritt has a history with marathon collections; his 1999 album 69 Love Songs is a three-volume revue which was lauded as one of the best releases of that decade. He simply doesn’t write many misses.

Tonight, Merritt will return to the Barbican for the second half of 50 Song Memoir, charting his years in the Magnetic Fields – another magical chance to cherish this eccentric pop pearl.

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100 best love songs
100 best love songs