The irresistible pull of the Magnetic attraction

The Magnetic Fields | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London; Kathryn Williams | Mercury Prize Nominations
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The press adore the Magnetic Fields. Their latest album, 69 Love Songs, has garnered every superlative in the book, and the band's main man, Stephin Merritt, has had interviewers queuing up to sample his New York intellect at first hand. Now, you might argue that we should be concentrating on someone more popular (where are all the Ronan Keating interviews, eh?), but look at it from our point of view. Each week we listen to some decent album or other and then along comes a triple CD of 69 urbane, pithy ditties written in dozens of styles by one man. You have to admit, it makes a change.

The press adore the Magnetic Fields. Their latest album, 69 Love Songs, has garnered every superlative in the book, and the band's main man, Stephin Merritt, has had interviewers queuing up to sample his New York intellect at first hand. Now, you might argue that we should be concentrating on someone more popular (where are all the Ronan Keating interviews, eh?), but look at it from our point of view. Each week we listen to some decent album or other and then along comes a triple CD of 69 urbane, pithy ditties written in dozens of styles by one man. You have to admit, it makes a change.

The same goes for the Fields in concert. Tuesday's show began with Merritt playing "A Pretty Girl Is Like..." (song 19). Perched on a stool and strumming a ukulele with his thumb, he looked like a doleful ventriloquist's dummy, and he sang in a canyon-deep lugubrious voice: "A pretty girl is like a violent crime / If you do it wrong you could do time / But if you do it right it is sublime." Claudia Gonson, the Fields' pianist, claimed that some of their concerts are rock'n'roll parties, but that this one would be a different kettle of fish. "I didn't know it was a kettle of fish," remarked Merritt, as deadpan as ever. "That's how different it is."

They were right. The audience and the band were all seated, except when Merritt, wine glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, wandered off to explore the stage. There was no sign of such rock and pop bedrocks as a drummer or a bassist. Instead, the composer was joined by three classically trained musicians on guitar, cello and piano - and sometimes not even these. John Woo plucked no more than a dozen notes on "The Book of Love" (song 12), and the only other instrument was Merritt's ukulele.

To say that the group play with rare precision is not to detract from the loveliness of the music. But what really distinguished the concert was that the subtle backing let you hear the lyrics - and that the lyrics were worth hearing. As if caught in a magnetic field, the audience leant forward to catch every word of the acidic vignettes and pastiches. Merritt has been compared to Cole Porter and Noël Coward, which is only to be expected of someone who can write the couplet, "Be it in Paris or in Lansing / Nothing matters when we're dancing" (song 21). But Porter and Coward never stretched so far for a rhyme that it took them away from a song's emotional core and towards self-congratulatory cleverness, and Merritt does that all too regularly. Besides, Noël and Cole never had much of a country'n'western influence.

His inwardly smirking detachment meant that, while the Fields sounded fresh to begin with, after an hour of similarly paced postmodern drollery they seemed more like a kettle of cold fish. Still, whenever there were moments of doubt, something as wonderful as "Papa Was A Rodeo" (song 40) would come along to confirm what a fabulous talent Merritt is. There's no doubt that the concert was an event. Among the delighted fans, I spotted Peter Gabriel, Marc Almond, Colin Greenwood from Radiohead and Merritt's Irish counterpart, Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy - who released his own Short Album About Love a couple of years before Merritt's long album about love. The Magnetic Fields really are too interesting to be left to journalists and pop stars.

On the same day that the Fields showcased one of the albums of the year, the Mercury Prize's 12 British and Irish albums of the year were announced. More indie-oriented than usual, the shortlist is still irritatingly representative. As usual there is one folk album, one classical, one Asian, one dance and one garage (replacing the now obsolete "one jungle" slot). The bookies' favourite is Coldplay's Parachutes, at 3:1, but I'm not tempted: considering that the award has never gone to Radiohead or Travis, it would be a farce to give it to the trainees. A better bet might be the 20:1 outsider, Kathryn Williams, occupant of this year's "folk" slot.

For one thing, she could do with the prize money. Having refused to have anything to do with major labels, the 26-year-old Liverpudlian set up her own record company, if that's not too grand a word: taping her first album cost all of £80, and she splashed out £3,000 on the second. For her investment, she got two collections of shyly pretty tunes with tip-toeing acoustic instrumentation and a voice barely above a whisper - so maybe she doesn't need the prize money. Any further embellishment to Little Black Numbers would have sullied it.

The Mercury nomination has already had an effect. Thursday's show "was meant to be a nice, quiet, intimate, not-scary gig", said Williams, sitting with her acoustic guitar, but an invasion of press cameras, video cameras and TV cameras had put paid to that. Peeping between curtains of Alan Davies curls, she was startled and amused by the turn-out and told an anecdote about how she was "not good with crowds" - the irony being that in the very act of telling it she demonstrated how good with crowds she is. It's been a long time since I've seen someone with such a chatty, natural rapport with the audience.

Her music continues this unaffected communication. Comparisons with Nick Drake and Beth Orton have already become clichés, but as Williams murmurs on "We Dug a Hole", clichés come from the truth, and she'll be lucky if she isn't known as Nick Duck by the end of the year. A drummer taps the snare with his fingers, a cello and double bass provide jazzily melodic counterpoint, and Williams breathes bittersweet observations that are so unflinching and guileless as to be devastating. "You only stop talking when you're sleeping," she sings on "Soul To Feet". "There's got to be something wrong with your past." Her voice is as soft and light as blossom.

When she addresses bigger, less personal issues she risks tweeness. And after an hour of her hushed tones most listeners will be ready for a quick blast of Metallica. But these are quibbles. Williams will soon be getting used to bigger crowds than Thursday's.

Comments