As he reaffirmed at the first night of a two-show Gotham stand, Magnetic Fields front man Stephin Merritt isn’t exactly an electric presence onstage. Seated on a barstool, delivering his arch tales of romantic dislocation in a dry baritone, Merritt was more of a black hole — soaking up energy and secreting it in some dark corner of his psyche.
Band’s devotees have grown not only to expect such non-hammy wryness from Merritt but to welcome both the mordant wit he displays in his songs and the nonchalant non sequiturs he offers in between — including dissections of the Whitney Biennial, the oeuvre of Pete Seeger and “The Red Balloon.”
Performing in support of the just released Nonesuch album “i,” Merritt stripped his usually spare band to its most bare-boned state in years, with all-acoustic, percussion-free backing. At times, the quartet waxed almost medieval — as on the deceptively gentle “I Was Born” — and at others, it bordered on grad-school hootenanny (particularly when guitarist John Woo switched to banjo and Merritt picked up his ukulele).
Forays into earlier work, while infrequent, were handled nicely: A reformatted “Smoke and Mirrors,” on which Merritt seemed to be channeling Stephen Sondheim, worked marvelously, as did a version of “I Don’t Believe You,” which traded Brill Building sheen for cafe society weariness.
While the nakedness of presentation played to the strength of Merritt’s meticulously constructed lyrics — most notably on the smoky, cabaret-flavored “In an Operetta” — it weakened the band’s dynamic. A hint of the off-kilter electro-pop or lounge-jazz that crept into earlier perfs would have made the ride a little less smooth but a lot more interesting.
Magnetic Fields perform at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles on July 17.