Stephin Merritt is one of indie rock’s least likely success stories — in fact, the leader of Magnetic Fields is one of the least likely characters in all of rock. He’s an openly gay, defiantly miserable misanthrope who obsesses over Cole Porter and Abba, a malicious dictator who’s just looking to put a little love in his heart.
Merritt also happens to be one of the past decade’s most gifted songwriters, a fact finally made unambiguous on the Fields’ three-disc “69 Love Songs,” which provided the foundation for the spacious set performed Thursday night.
Looking utterly bedraggled, cigarette and cognac in hand, the diminutive frontman strolled onstage in mid-sneer, all the better to up the attitude level of the Irving Berlin caricature “A Pretty Girl Is Like…” — in which Merritt finishes the titular simile with likenings to “a violent crime” and so on.
Although he’s somewhat limited as a singer — his throaty baritone splits the difference between Nick Cave and Lotte Lenya — Merritt is a master of contrast. He’ll create a picture of ravenously joyous sex and slather it in melodic bathos (“Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”) and back a tale of woe and murder with a jaunty bubblegum riff (“Yeah, Oh Yeah,” performed as a duet with keyboardist Claudia Gonson).
Like, say, Guided by Voices leader Robert Pollard, Merritt is bound by his devotion to brevity: Few of his songs meander past the three minute mark. But unlike Pollard, he’s hellbent on avoiding repetition. As such, his drummer-free backing band employs such instrumentation as mandolin, banjo and cello, rather than standard rock implements.
Sure, that’s something of an affectation. But it’s easy to forgive when Merritt is so willing to wear his influences, if not his heart, on his sleeve in songs like the nickelodeon-piano propelled “Papa Was a Rodeo” (which manages to pile pop cliches higher than an AM radio tower).
By set’s end, the quartet had touched on Western swing, starched-collar waltzes, Left Bank-styled baroque pop and a passel of other genres. Merritt is too sly to be pop’s Forrest Gump, but he would like you to open his songs not knowing what you’re going to get.