As befits his billing as the Woody Allen of melancholic chamber pop, Stephin Merritt's music encompasses comedy, tragedy and a sandpaper wit so dry it practically chafes.
The frontman and chief songwriter of The Magnetic Fields, he has the capacity to be both chortle-out-loud hilarious and cosmically sad. On his band's latest album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, there are spry ditties about transgender romance, bumping off your husband and the depthless misery of the human condition.
Merritt found mainstream success with his 1999 LP 69 Love Songs, a sprawling meditation on love and loneliness and the way the two can often feel like reverse sides of the same thing. The record made him famous, while also setting in concrete the caricature of Merritt as an incurable curmudgeon. In concert it's a stereotype he seems determined to live up to.
Standing at the far right of the stage so that he practically has one foot in the wings, Merritt is a reluctant guest at his own party. The spotlight is ceded to his four-piece band, led by pianist and vocalist Claudia Gonson and filled out by ukulele player Shirley Simms, violinist Sam Davol and acoustic strummer John Woo.
With their albums, The Magnetic Fields step briskly between genres, from electro-pop to country music via straightforward indie rock.
Because Merritt suffers an acute strain of tinnitus, live they are forced to strip down and simplify. Hence tonight's unplugged arrangement, wherein songs that sound very different on record are re-cast as delicate, sometimes furtive amalgams of guitar and string.
The great irony about Merritt's lionisation as the doyen of comedy lyrics is that, the smarter his wordplay, the less memorable his music.
The downward slope in the band's trajectory is obvious tonight. Contrast the gimmicky My Husband's Pied-a-Terre, a hokey new murder romp, with the timelessly sad Grand Canyon, a late '90s ballad.
For fans, the set draws rather too heavily on Love at the Bottom of the Sea, though there is a redeeming moment with the surprise inclusion of All My Little Words. It's a beautiful, wrenching dirge, a reminder of what a peerless pop writer Merritt can be when he sets novelty aside and gets on with the far more interesting business of baring his broken heart before the world.