As a songwriter, Stephin Merritt’s legendarily busy muse is certainly not newsworthy – we are, after all, talking about a man who’s Magnetic Fields once released an album entitled 69 Love Songs, a sprawling, three-disc behemoth that offered up exactly what its title promised. Merritt’s also the man behind The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, Buffalo Rome, and Future Bible Heroes, and responsible for several operettas bearing his own name. He’s been involved in more projects than Dave Grohl; in terms of artists who came to prominence in the ’90s, his recorded output outpaces Billy Corgan, and rivals Robert Pollard and the gatekeeper at the Tupac vaults for sheer quantity. So it’s not surprising that Stephin Merritt’s Obscurities, a sort of vault-exhuming, fan-baiting catchall for non-album and unreleased tracks, exists; what’s surprising is that it’s only fourteen tracks long.
It’s also surprising that Obscurities functions remarkably well as a Merritt primer. In addition to being extraordinarily prolific, Merritt’s muse is often restless – 69 Love Songs, arguably The Magnetic Fields’ (and, subsequently, Merritt’s) best-known work, demonstrates this best, lithely pogoing from one style to another, encompassing straightforward ballads, dissonant blues, dysfunctional ’70s pop, Lieber & Stoller, and approximately 700 other musical styles in one marathon, breathless listening session. Obscurities pares down Merritt’s genre ping-pong act into 40 concise minutes; the effect is no less dizzying, but a little more digestible.
And, thus, Obscurities offers the next best thing to a career-encompassing Stephin Merritt retrospective, because these fourteen songs serve as a perfectly acceptable power-point presentation making the case for Merritt as a Great American Songwriter, outlining what makes him tick, and allowing immersion in his perpetual game of subgenre-specific musical chairs. The short, ukelele-adorned opener “Forever and a Day” offers up Merritt’s wry wit while exemplifying his straight-to-the-heart gift for lovely, low-key moments of sincerity; but the next track, “We Are the Rats in the Garbage of the Western World”, sets urban ennui to a canned Pet Shop Boys pastiche, and is as dark as any of Merritt’s more personal early albums. Fields alternate-take “I Don’t Believe You” sounds like an old Cure demo, what with its dry synths and insistence on self-defeating insecurity; “so you quote-love-unquote me; well, stranger things have come to be, so let’s agree to disagree”, the opening triplet, outlines the internal conflict quite succinctly. That “I Don’t Believe You” directly precedes the achingly romantic country-and-western shuffle of “Plant White Roses” – certainly one of Merritt’s most earnest and plaintive love songs – can’t be by coincidence.
Elsewhere, we’re treated to Merritt channeling the same synth-pop muse that made OMD and the Thompson Twins briefly famous for a few minutes with “Scream (Till You Make the Scene)”, the Beatles on the hilariously deadpan “Beach-A-Boop-Boop” (or perhaps the Beatles-via-the-garage of The Replacements), and, oddly, himself on The 6ths’ “Yet Another Girl”, which often sounds suspiciously like 69 Love Songs highlight “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” – it trades in the same affected Casio bounce and rides a strikingly similar melody (it’s worth noting that this isn’t the only time this happens on Obscurities – the sparse, disarming “When I’m Not Looking, You’re Not There” seems to employ the pre-chorus of “I Don’t Wanna Get Over You” as its central melody).
Obscurities often comes across as a particularly keyboard-drenched lost Magnetic Fields album; given Merritt’s predilection to writing about love’s peccadilloes and complexities, none of these songs would sound out of place on 69 Love Songs. It’s a deeply catchy, often personal, and more than a little idiosyncratic distillation of all the reasons one might enjoy Merritt’s work; for fans or neophytes, Obscurities generally wins, and coheres remarkably well for a compilation of this sort.