I was lucky enough to catch the Magnetic Fields’ concert at the Royal Festival Hall on the 25th of April, for their one and only performance in London as they tour to promote their new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea. This was the second time I managed to catch them (the first time was at the Barbican two years ago, when they were touring for Realism, their previous album), and it was just as satisfying as the first time.
I’ve been a big fan of theirs for a few years now. Unlike most people, the first I ever heard of them was i, the follow-up to 69 Love Songs. I didn’t know anything about them or their back catalog, so I came to it fresh. They were certainly different, both in terms of subject matter and sound. But no matter how varied the styles of music, they had a sharp wit running through all their lyrics, and this really appealed to me.
Since then I’ve managed to pick up the rest of their back catalog, so I came to the concert pretty well prepared. And they didn’t disappoint – the band played music from almost all across their career (the only full albums they didn’t play anything from were the first two, The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees).
Given the range of sounds they’ve used over the years, and the fact that they use a more limited, mostly acoustic, set of instruments on-stage, a lot of what they played sounded very different from the studio versions. Not only that, but a lot of songs were sung by different vocalists than on the albums – for example, Claudia Gonson sang “Swinging London”, which was sung by Stephin Merritt on Holiday, while Stephin sang Shirley Simms’ part on “Drive on Driver”, from Distortion.
But I did enjoy it, as it gave me a new appreciation of some of the songs I already knew. For example, this version of “Swinging London” was more piano-driven than the original, giving it a musical theater vibe that I thought worked for it.
Much of the rest of the set was given over to songs from the new album, with “Goin’ Back to the Country” and latest single “Andrew in Drag” the particular highlights. 69 Love Songs also (perhaps understandably) accounted for a big part of their set; the high point for me was “All My Little Words”, which is my favorite track from that album. They also played a couple of songs off last year’s compilation, Obscurities, and “Smile! No One Cares How You Feel”, from the Gothic Archies’ Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events.
All in all, it was a good concert, and a nice chance to see one of my favorite bands play live again, for a too-rare London appearance. And hopefully I’ll get to see them play the entirety of 69 Love Songs one day, too.