The Magnetic Fields – The Attraction’s Still There

5 Apr

Oh, The Magnetic Fields. It would be so easy to label them as a middle aged hipster band, but I won’t, because nothing could be further from the truth. And the truth is that they’ve always been understated, melancholy, and deliver a one two punch of wry-dry onstage banter – long before it was en vogue for musicians to behave like social wallflowers. It has taken hipsters twenty years to catch up to and appropriate their style, and that ahead-of-the-curve-ness is testament to the fact that they were pioneers, not followers perpetually concerned with reinventing themselves or giving a shit about trends. In twenty years, when the “cool kids” have worn their plaid flannel shirts threadbare and abandoned their über-thick rimmed glasses in favour of pink tutus and top hats (I say this under the assumption that the 2032 equivalent of ‘Lumberjack Buddy Holly’ will be “Ballerina Henry Higgins”), the Fields will still be themselves, anachronistic or not.

To call them an indie band bears an extra weight of accuracy, for that moniker is not bestowed upon them for conforming to a genre (the irony of the word “independence” being used to lump music into a convenient category is already lost on too many), but precisely because they have always stood on their two feet. May they never stop doing so.

That wish may be unnecessary. With the launch of their new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea – an album filled with darkly comedic tales of love and revenge – they are already gaining a lot of renewed and positive attention. With the reintroduction of their trademark synth infused sound, the album is being favourably compared to their 1999 mega-opus 69 Love Songs, a triple album of poppy bite sized compositions rife with romance and irony.

The Magnetic Fields are currently on tour to promote Love at the Bottom of the Sea and recently made a stop at the Sound Academy in Toronto, where they performed to a generous crowd dotted with 20 somethings, 30 somethings, and 40 somethings in equal measure (regardless of age, plaid flannel – not yet threadbare – seemed to be the uniform of choice).

Opening for them was solo electronica artist Bachelorette who, in terms of charisma, did a pretty good impression of Wednesday Addams. Her enjoyable set of choral-synth pop had more panache, with hints of Bjork, Animal Collective, and even a little Enya to keep things interesting.

In contrast, the Magnetic Fields offered up an intimate, eclectic and almost entirely acoustic set, with Claudia Gonson on piano, Shirley Simms  on Ukelele, John Woo on guitar, and Sam Davol on cello. Magnetic Fields creative juggernaut and chief songwriter, Stephin Merritt – looking positively Dickensian sporting a beard, wool cap, and scarf – lent his distinctive sandpaper baritone to most numbers and alternated between harmonium, melodica, and a trio of kazoos. Although not as complex a sound as their studio output, the clean and crisp quality of their live performance meant that nary a witty lyric or poetic image was squashed.

Their set was, not surprisingly, an assortment of old chestnuts and new tracks. Fan favourite, ‘Chicken with Its Head Cut Off’ was plucky and bright in contrast to the hauntingly sombre and minimalist rendition of their standout hit ‘The Book of Love’. The country-infused ‘Plant White Roses’ offered an opportunity for Gonson, Simms, and Merritt to engage in beautiful three part harmony, while ‘Swinging London’ used the ensemble as a whole to create a notably full and rich soundscape – especially with Davol’s cello shining through.

Often just as memorable as the songs themselves were Merritt’s quirky introductions and musings, including “The audience is in a scary blue light. I’ll pretend you’re zombies.”, “We do not take requests. We took a request once and it did not go well.”, and “This is a song about a terrible place in the United States called San Francisco. Never go there, and if you do, come back.”

In a world where videos of precocious cats and groin destroying skateboard mishaps have become the gold standard for entertainment, such subtle showmanship and musicianship is a rarity that ought to be cherished.

For more information about The Magnetic Fields, their tour dates, blog, and discography, check out their website at

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