Stephin Merritt - Obscurities

by Al Brown Rating:7 Release Date:2011-09-05

Given his prolificacy, the idea of a Stephin Merritt rarities comp seems a little strange: surely the man who put out the epic 69 Love Songs (as The Magnetic Fields) doesn't have a cutting-room floor covered with further gems? For as much as we all admire 69 Love Songs, it is not a consistent triple-album - if such a thing exists - more of an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink experiment; many songs are concise and bare (dare I say undercooked?) and rescued only by their author's striking baritone; his immense lyrical dexterity and the over-reaching insanity of the idea as a whole. The same could be said, to a lesser degree, of the entirety of Merritt's career, with his numerous collaborations and side-projects as well as that imposing Magnetic Fields back catalogue. Several of the tracks here in fact originate from side-projects Buffalo Rome, 6ths and The Gothic Archies.

The record is predictably schizophrenic, featuring sedate love songs: 'Forever and a Day' and 'Plant White Roses'; the 80s disco-stomp of 'Scream (Till [sic] You Make the Scene' and the Suicide-esque 'You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home'. Quality-wise it's a mixed bag too. You get the impression that Merritt writes quickly and doesn't over-think his compositions, which means songs can be instantly hooky but also often repetitive, lacking in subtlety and a touch predictable. Combine this with his taste for minimalism - few songs have more than three or four musical elements - and there is little new to discover after the first listen or two. The abrasive, industrial 'Rats in the Garbage of the Western World' is guilty of some of these things as is 'Scream (Till You Make the Scene)'.

Not all the songs are even new, but a chiptunes-inspired reworking of 'I Don't Believe You' turns out fairly well and a Susan Anway-sung version of 'Take Ecstasy with Me' retains its euphoric (what else??) charm. 'The Sun and the Sea and the Sky' is the only 69 Love Songs off-cut (left out "because it isn't actually about romantic love" according to Merritt himself) and is a very pretty, very simple acoustic number.

In 'When You're Young and in Love' Merritt assumes the guise of the cool, depressed uncle: "You can teeter on the brink of a precipice/ over an infinitely deep abyss/ and somehow not even notice this/ when you're young and in love." He states, "But when you're not, the poison fangs of time become quite plain/ When you're not it almost seems a crime not to go insane!" The Beat Happening-esque Beach Boys parody 'Beach-A-Boop-Boop' is a pleasant change of pace and the cynical yet euphoric 'Yet Another Girl' showcases all of Merritt's pop nous.

So, as I said earlier, it's like every other rarities compilation and every other Stephin Merritt album: a bit hit and miss. But when it hits, it's gold, baby.

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