For the uninitiated, Stephin Merritt is one of New York’s best songwriters. His combination of wry wit and baritone voice makes him the Stateside equivalent of Neil Hannon and his Divine Comedy.
Despite years of hard work, it was only with The Magnetic Fields’ 2001’s sprawling triple set he gained a wider press, and while that album has little quality control, half the joy with regard to that release comes from discovering the sparkly diamonds among the trash.
‘Obscurities’ pulls together fourteen rarities (a bunch of stuff from 7”s and other oddities, but most importantly five previously unreleased cuts) from Merritt’s pre-2001 breakthrough; tracks from various projects, but each one essentially containing the sparks of genius you’ve come to love from Merritt’s musical theatre, alternating between sneering, wistful and occasionally high camp.
An early Magnetic Fields number ‘Beach-a-Boop-Boop’ combines a lo-fi guitar and youthful sounding vocal with a tune that sounds rather a lot like Cat Stevens’s ‘Here Comes My Baby’ and as such, it’s easy to see why it’s languished in obscurity. As is often the case with Merritt, though, it still has charm…and an annoying tendency to wedge itself inside your head. Further back in the time capsule, Buffalo Rome’s ‘Plant White Roses’ is a simple acoustic based country-folk hybrid, made more whimsical by Shirley Simms’s vocal. So much more mature than ‘Beach’, but perhaps more importantly, easier to digest than the futurist electronica of a couple of the featured numbers. It’s testament to Merritt’s gift from writing songs in different styles, if nothing else.
‘Riot In The Sun’ (credited to The 6ths) is one of the collection’s clear standouts, even though the aggressive programmed electronic elements, at first, sound as if they’re going to be impenetrable. After a few bars, they prove otherwise and once Merritt’s deep croon finds a home among the noises, everything works well. The track is a short tribute to the man’s perverse genius and ability to blend styles that really shouldn’t be blended. [Other previously released works by The 6ths feature a host of guest vocalists, including Lou Barlow, Bob Mould, Gary Numan and Marc Almond].
‘When I’m Not Looking, You’re Not There’ is an unreleased cut from The Magnetic Fields, and unusually, it’s one of the tracks here which ought to have stayed buried. Yes, Merritt’s baritone oozes its usual self-assured charm, but the music…the music is a collection of disjointed electronic bleeps which frustrate more than they entertain. Similarly, an alternate cut of that band’s ‘I Don’t Believe You’ is comprised of electronic nothingness, spoiling what is one of Merritt’s best ever songs. Thankfully, he later went back to the drawing board and came up with a gorgeous folk-pop arrangement for this number (as heard on the finished version, released on ‘i’ a few years later).
Utilising dark synths and a liberal dose of oddball song writing, The Gothic Archies’ ‘You Are Not My Mother and I Want To Go Home’ is an unreleased track written for an audiobook of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’. It is somewhat unsettling. The synth loop is one which doesn’t break from its initial pattern and this becomes rather threatening, especially after a minute or so. Over the drones, Merritt muses “…you want me to be your garden gnome…” Okay then. Occasionally, though, the electronic edges are used brilliantly. ‘Rats In The Garbage of the Western World’ is such a moment, where Merritt takes on a very new wave mantle. Musically, it transports the listener back to 1981 and the works of bands like Visage and Landscape, all the while dressed in Merritt’s own vision. The sneer is present and at first it sounds scathing, but there’s a typically twisted pay-off line: “We’re rats in the garbage of the western world…so let’s dance!”. Bubbling synths and an Art Of Noise-esque sampled voice provide the base of ‘Song of Venus’, a song from an unfinished musical by Merritt and Lemony Snickett. As expected, a throwaway lyric means it’s not got the charisma of some of Merritt’s better works, but as is so oft the case, his vocal has a huge confidence and that alone pulls the listener in. Very few people bring such charm to the absurd.
Other high points include the unreleased ‘When You’re Young and In Love’, which showcases Merritt’s semi-acoustic side, which revels in its relatively simple arrangement and ‘Take Ecstasy With Me’, another Magnetic Fields rarity, which cleverly blends heavy world music style drumming with some keyboard vibes which would befit Vince Clarke. The drums drown out the vocal on occasion, but overall it’s a number which works, even if to provide the most obvious respite from the dominant synths on a few of the other tracks.
Usually, such a ragbag collection of leftovers would be purely for longtime fans (see Tom Waits’s ‘Orphans’ for the best/worst example ever), but Merritt’s work is often of a very varied style; that alone makes this feel more coherent than perhaps it should. No matter whom he collaborates with – be it The Magnetic Fields, The Gothic Archies or any of his other projects – it’s always Merritt’s distinctive song writing at the fore. His many fans will welcome the release of ‘Obscurities’ for sure; those yet to take the plunge into Merritt’s world, meanwhile, should still glean some enjoyment from the album’s fourteen leftovers. It may be inconsistent, but Merritt’s hit and miss approach is what often fuels his brilliance.