Stephin Merritt Brought Humor and Love to Central Presbyterian Church: Live Review

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Stephin Merritt; photo by Bryan C. Parker

The Magnetic Fields’ primary creative force, Stephin Merritt, brought his theatrical songs to Central Presbyterian Church on Wednesday night for a conceptual performance. Merritt was accompanied by cellist Sam Doval, another member of Merritt’s longstanding project. For a guy like Merritt, who has also written songs for his bands The 6ths, The Future Bible Heroes, and The Gothic Archies, not to mention composing music and songs for select film soundtracks, choosing a setlist can be daunting. For his current tour, which consists of only a handful of dates, Merritt has decided to restrict himself to a distinct format: each show will feature exactly 26 songs, one beginning with each letter of the alphabet, performed in alphabetical order.

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Stephin Merritt; photo by Bryan C. Parker

Since I just finished writing a book that employs an alphabetic sequence as its structure, I was hooked from the moment I heard the premise. But beyond that, the organization offered a fresh and entertaining bent to the evening. As Magnetic Fields fans tend to be fiercely devoted, it left us less worried about if our favorite song would make the setlist and more focused on guessing which song would be ascribed to which letter. Further, the conceptual structure mirrors the sort of playfully thematic work to which Merritt has been prone: an album with songs all beginning with the letter “I,” an album with all songs slathered in distortion, and more generally, the recurring themes of love, sex, and death.

Stephin Merritt; photo by Bryan C. Parker

Stephin Merritt; photo by Bryan C. Parker

Merritt has been lauded as one of American music’s most gifted songwriters, and his show on Wednesday served to underscore this fact in every regard. While Merritt played ukulele almost exclusively except when using only his voice, Sam Doval supplied minimal and elegant cello parts, and the Central Presbyterian Church stayed so quiet even a whisper sounded harsh in the utterly still and dimly lit room. In this way, Merritt succeeded in essentially removing the live music aspects of stage presence, show lighting, and audience, allowing us to observe the songs in as pure a form as possible. With his wry, dark humor, Merritt did occasionally pipe up between songs to make quips about the inappropriate nature of a few songs being sung in a church, namely “The Nun’s Litany,” which recounts one woman’s secret wishes, including but not limited to being a dominatrix and a “porno starlet.”

Stephin Merritt; photo by Bryan C. Parker

Stephin Merritt; photo by Bryan C. Parker

Both during songs and between them, Merritt had the audience laughing at his hilarious and witty lines between moments admiring his rich baritone. However, I must confess that I believe the best way to see Stephin Merritt is while in love. The songwriter possesses the ability to compose a love song that nestles somewhere between complete cheesiness and total sincerity. Four days before the show, my new wife and I used “It’s Only Time” during our wedding ceremony. Even though most of the night angled toward humor, hearing Merritt sing “The Book of Love” was enough to make our night. If you can still get tickets for one of the few remaining dates on this tour, do the right thing.

All photographs © Bryan C. Parker & Pop Press International; all rights reserved. Click any image to open set in slideshow viewer.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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