The Magnetic Fields, Cadogan Hall, London

Masters of the pocket symphony
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The Independent Culture

Stephin Merritt, the creative force behind the New York chamber-pop outfit The Magnetic Fields, mentioned in an interview recently that he hated shows where the audience had to stand. "It's obscene. You spend dozens of your monetary units to see a show, so they should at least give you a chair."

I'd say there was a much better reason than that for wanting to be seated when seeing The Magnetic Fields; the band are not really rock'n'pop performers at all, but recitalists akin to a classical quintet. I'm sure their mix of show tunes, inky black humour and anguished romanticism could happily be appreciated from a standing position, but a certain kind of attentiveness goes with sitting down – from Dylan in Manchester in 1965 to Barenboim at the Festival Hall in 2008 – and that's what you get with a Magnetic Fields show, rare as they are.

The venue played an important part. The Cadogan Hall, which started life in 1907 as a New Christian Science Church, has an airy stateliness that provided the five-piece with a backdrop that seemed to render their music in architectural form: calm and measured, but also warm and with some wonderful flourishes.

The band had had a bad day, they told us, having taken eight hours to travel to London from Dublin after their plane developed a fault with its radar. "There are only so many instruments you can lose before you start hallucinating," Merritt said in what is arguably the deepest voice in pop, a kind of cleaned-up Tom Waits but conveying its own unique brand of world-weariness.

The Merritt effect, which is drolly downbeat, was offset by the band member who very much plays co-leader in live performance, the pianist Claudia Gonson, a figure as outwardly wholesome as Merritt seems decadent. The combination of her voice and that of Shirley Simms was glorious, in a Carole King kind of way, with the sound complemented by Sam Davol's cello, John Woo's guitar and Merritt's mandolin.

It's now nine years since The Magnetic Fields produced 69 Love Songs, their magnum opus – three CDs' worth of wit and beauty and an achievement so towering that one can understand why only two albums have followed. (Merritt involves himself in other projects.) Just out is Distortion, an experiment in feedback and Phil Spectorisation that the band did not have the means to reproduce on stage, which as far as purists were concerned may not have been a bad thing.

There remains a vast repertoire to draw on, and the band couldn't be expected to do much more than scratch the surface. But Merritt has always understood the virtue of brevity, and they still managed 23 songs in a little more than 100 minutes, a mixture of pocket symphonies, jeux d'esprit and mini-dramas that tackled age-old themes of love, loss and the everyday with bite and freshness. Cole Porter is a clear antecedent, as is Tom Lehrer, and the music and lyrics could have come out of nowhere but New York.

"Here's another song about being abandoned," Merritt announced, referring to "Too Drunk To Dream", with its lines, "I know you think I'm insane/ I know it's not appealing/ but until I'm feeling no pain/ guess what I am feeling?"

Then there was "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin", which begins with the couplet, "I wish I had an evil twin/ Running around doing people in." Truly, Merritt is the poet of self-pity, and Gonson got into the spirit of things when she prefaced one song by telling us that "this is the sort of song you put before an interval. It's called 'Water Torture'."

Not all the emotion was undercut and, with its heartbreaking reflection on a desolate upbringing, "Papa Was a Rodeo" provided the highlight of the evening. It deserved a standing ovation. Then again, it may have been more important to stay in our seats.

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