Music Reviews

Stephin Merritt Obscurities

(Merge) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Is Stephin Merritt the greatest songwriter working today? It may be a rather bold claim to make, but considering his consistent ability to turn out a smart, witty, genre-hopping tune, it's not one without... um... merit. And, as if to confirm his position, he's now gone and released a collection of off-cuts and outcasts that's far better than most artists' A-material. Stretching back to when he was 14 (the pleasant, but incredibly repetitive Beach-a-boop-boop), Obscurities pretty much covers all of Merritt's many guises – in addition to a fair amount of solo material there are tracks from short-lived country band Buffalo Rome, 'bubblegum goth' act The Gothic Archies and the collaboration-based project The 6ths, and even his recent forays into musical theatre are represented with a couple of excerpts from the aborted sci-fi show The Song of Venus (technically there's nothing here from his synth-pop offshoot Future Bible Heroes, but several tracks sound like they could be).

But odds are the Magnetic Fields material will be of the most interest to fans, and of this perhaps the most exciting is 69 Love Songs' 'lost' 70th love song The Sun and the Sea and the Sky, which is not a bad little number – even though it somewhat alarmingly sounds like it could turn into Joan Osbourne's One of Us at any moment; it was, at least, more deserving of a place on that album than something like Punk Rock Love (Merritt claims it didn't make the cut as it fell slightly outside the album's brief). Also included are a few alternate takes of already released Fields material which are, to be frank, a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand there's the original 7” version of I Don't Believe You, which perhaps proves that the puritan 'no synths' rule he imposed on the i album wasn't such a bad idea, as this earlier take is far too cluttered with the chirpings of a decrepit Moog - yet on the other there's original Fields' vocalist Susan Anway's delightful run through of Holiday's Take Ecstasy With Me, in which her shy, delicate vocals work at odds with both the lyrical content and the relentlessly pounding drum beat quite brilliantly. (Patsy Cline parody Plant White Roses has always been one of the Magnetic Fields' more insubstantial efforts, so the Buffalo Rome version neither adds nor takes away much from it).

Otherwise, the best material comes from Merritt's side-projects - Yet Another Girl, a 6ths collaboration with Young Marble Giants' Stuart Moxham is a breezy gem of a song, which was presumably dumped as it's not a million miles away from 69 Love Songs' favourite The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side, while The Song of Venus' When You're Young and in Love sounds like it could have been an acerbic curtain call for that record. And most intriguingly there's Scream (Til You Make the Scene), allegedly Merritt's only attempt at writing a metal song. In truth, that billing is possibly enough to get Merge sued under the trade descriptions act as the only allowances it really makes to the genre are a brief guitar solo and 'more cowbell', but it is hilarious and probably the most camp thing that he's ever done (which is saying something).

Of course, there is a reason why these songs were rejects of one kind or another, and it's not always because of conceptual clashes/over-familiarity/band line-up changes. While Merritt's aforementioned wit and melodic ear are never entirely absent, in some cases it does seem like there's an either/or situation going on - for example, Rats in the Garbage of the Western World is a scuzzy synthpop sketch with a real earworm of a hook but a lazy lyric and vocal, while the anti-LA sentiment of Rot in the Sun reeks of his trademark bitter sarcasm, but musically it's a bit of a dirge. Elsewhere, Forever and a Day is a pretty bit of not-very-much, and conversely, When I'm Not Looking, You're Not There is eccentric to the point of being insane – in his obsessive desire to run through every sound at his disposal, Merritt's ended up with something that sounds it belongs on Bjork's Biophilia. All that being said, every track has at least something of interest about it, and with Obscurities managing to squeeze in fourteen of them in less than forty minutes, even the worst never outstay their welcome.

By it's very nature Obscurities is hardly a coherent experience (it may in fact prove that Merritt's enthusiasm for concepts is necessary to make his stylistic dalliances work as albums), but it is notable for being that rarest of things, a rarities record that will appeal to more than just the die-hard fans – arguably it's a better starting point for new listeners than most of Merritt's post-69 Love Songs output.