Spread out over two days, The Magnetic Fields finished their tour by performing their latest album 50 Song Memoir, released earlier this year, in its entirety to a curious Barbican audience looking to catch a glimpse of frontman Stephin Merritt's life. A concept album, 50 Song Memoir is – at least to an extent – autobiographical, covering the first 50 years of Merritt's life, although he has blurred the lines between fact and fiction especially during the live shows. In his scripted speeches between songs, he suggests that not everything he says should necessarily be taken at face value.
However, the intimacy of the songs says something else: we hear about Merritt's mother's ex-boyfriends, Merritt's weird diseases and suicidal ideation, Merritt's own ex-boyfriends, Merritt's childhood cat. Sat on a stool in the middle of a stage filled with corny childhood toys, he performs the songs with casual nonchalance or apparent indifference, as if to play down the personal meanings. At the same time, Merritt indulges in the melodrama of the songs with self-deprecating gestures and facial expressions, as well as dry and ironic comments between songs: at one point, he reads out a section of a NY Press review quoting ”Merritt's passive-aggressive snobbery”.
Magnetic Fields' lyrics are central to their music, inspiring snickers and giggles in the concert hall every few minutes, but the orchestration is impressive too, with instruments ranging from marimba and saws to cello and synths. At times, the instruments overpower Merritt's vocals and some of the storylines are thus missed by those less familiar with the tracks. On the other hand, the variety in instrumentation over the 50 songs is crucial for transporting the audience into a different world for each of the songs – a seemingly impossible task that The Magnetic Fields somehow manage.
Their storytelling is aided by animations and videos played on screen, adding a significant element to the performance. The individual visuals don't seem to relate to each other, but range from abstract imagery to line drawings and grim hand puppet shows. This reinforces the feeling of being somewhere new during every track, further emphasising any changes in atmosphere.
The band jump effortlessly from eurodisco to serene ballads, keeping the audience on their toes for two full evenings, without boring them once. Despite the ever-changing sonic and visual worlds, you're never in doubt that you're listening to The Magnetic Fields, with their scarce percussion and Merritt's monotone low baritone.
The audience seem concentrated, laughing and enjoying the show – and sometimes not knowing whether to laugh or not. During 'Lovers' Lies', candy hearts are portrayed on screen, growing more and more sinister, eventually saying things like ”working late”. In a light-hearted atmosphere, many seem to wonder if it's acceptable to giggle or not. This slight awkwardness is by no means a bad thing: in fact, it is part of the intimacy, relatability and charm of the performance.
The live show accompanying 50 Song Memoir really presents the album in the ideal way. On its own, the album is one more in the band's already impressive repertoire of ambitious projects (see 69 Love Songs), but the live show brings it all together in an unexpectedly warm and contagious way for a project that feels undeniably private and personal.
To an outsider not familiar with The Magnetic Fields, it would seem like an odd variety show. To those who know them already, it is this and much more: emotional, funny and sad. Witnessing Merritt recount his experiences in sometimes uncomfortable detail, surrounded by soft toys and doll houses, feels like a strange honour. The whole experience puts you in mind of being invited over for tea at a fascinating neighbour's house, where they end up telling you their entire life story. Only this time, you don't have to worry about where to look.