Release Date: Aug 23, 2011
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Lo-Fi, Indie Electronic, Indie Pop
"We are the rats in the garbage of the Western World/So let’s dance" sings Stephin Merritt on the well-named "Rats in the Garbage of the Western World," a hilariously touching tribute to The Cure that sounds like it was recorded with a Casio toy keyboard in a VW beetle. It's perfect, but not the best song on this set of Nineties rarities by a dude whose cast-offs trump most bands' masterworks: That'd be a tie between the drolly sincere ukelele marriage ballad "Forever and a Day" and a remake (w/ singer Susan Anway) of the Magnetic Fields classic "Take Ecstasy With Me." Yeah, he's a romantic; a cynic, too. But above all, a songwriter: brilliant, perverse, funny as human nature.
The Sondheim of our generation is such an epically enigmatic and precise songwriter that even his throwaways are better than most people’s studied, full-blown releases. Rapier-smart and deeply voiced, the flinty Magnetic Fields main man pored through his back pages to come up with corrosive cassette-only releases from the K label, moribund items from the audiobook version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (of which Merritt soundtracked a musical) and a hauntingly cute yet cutting “Forever and a Day,” a ukulele-filled love song from an unfinished sci-fi musical that would make Eddie Vedder blush. Best of all, there’s “The Sun and the Sea and the Sky,” an unreleased take from one of pop’s greatest achievements, 69 Love Songs, that makes Obscurities worth the admission all by itself.
Stephin Merritt loves a good concept, most famously 69 Love Songs' teasingly numbered variations on a theme. That 1999 set is justifiably viewed as a watershed-- it brought the Magnetic Fields a much larger audience-- but it's also slightly overrated, unfairly eclipsing his smaller, darker, especially affecting earlier work. Outside 2004's underwhelming "me"-centric i, Merritt is strongest when he has precise space limits and when he's applying his volumes of ideas to intimate, less showy canvases.
Stephin Merritt‘s place in the pantheon of brilliant songwriters was confirmed around the time of The Magnetic Fields’ majestic, three-volume 69 Love Songs (1999), which carved out magnificent explorations of love in all its complexity. It positioned Merritt as one of the most protean, witty songwriters working today, recalling the work of Gershwin, Porter, Sondheim, and, at different turns, Randy Newman taking it to the dance floor. Before and after 69 Love Songs, Merritt has shown his great, idiosyncratic artistry: through the centrally placed vocals on 1996’s EP, The House of Tomorrow, or the strange, swirling songs on 2008’s Distortion, or projects such as the collaboration with Chen Shi-zheng on Showtunes (2006), or work on films such as Pieces of April.
The old adage about odds and sods collections like Obscurities—which, perhaps fittingly, marks Stephin Merritt and his Magnetic Fields’ return to Merge Records, where both first made their names—is that they’re only for completists and obsessives. That they usually comprise weird or somehow “less good” compositions, outtakes that weren’t A-list enough to make their way onto proper albums and instead get dumped onto compilations like this, often as a way to fulfill label contracts or simply serve as vanity projects. This is only sort of true with regards to Obscurities, which contains a mere five unreleased songs, and as such, maybe shouldn’t be called Obscurities in this age of torrents and Mediafire links.
As a compilation of unreleased songs, b-sides, and other assorted tracks from his various musical ventures (The Magnetic Fields/The 6ths/Gothic Archies etc) Obscurities has a broader remit than many Stephin Merritt releases, such as the travel-themed Charm of the Highway Strip or the dichotomous sonic vocabularies of Distortion and Realism. However, although it may lack the thematic consistency of his most recent releases, quality-wise Obscurities is at least on a par with his post-69 Love Songs no-synth-trilogy. In fact a pure joy of Obscurities is hearing Merritt's multi-layered synth orchestra again, most apparent on the 1998 7-inch single version of 'I Don't Believe You', pre-dating its appearance on 2004's i, but remaining (appropriately) obscure.
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.
There was a time when Stephin Merritt was being hailed as the next great American songwriter, compared not so much to the cream-of-the-crop of his indie-pop contemporaries, but to all-time greats like Berlin, Gershwin, and Sondheim. In large part, Merritt made that reputation as a result of the Magnetic Fields’ incomparable 69 Love Songs, on which he turned his musings on love and desire in all their forms—from queer to straight to indefinable, from romantic to platonic to unrequited—into the stuff of modern-day standards. Since then, however, it’s hard to say that Merritt has lived up to the lofty status that he had attained with 69 Love Songs, which, to be fair, would be a hard act for any artist to follow.
Stephin Merritt has few casual fans. People tend to flat-out love the Magnetic Fields or pay little attention to them. Because of that, Obscurities may be even more of a fan-only release than most rarity collections. It's a set that helps out completists with its inclusion of b-sides from out-of-print seven-inches, and it also includes five previously unreleased songs on top of those.
Review Summary: An uneasy step into new territory, or the beginning of the end?Heritage is, lest we forget, Opeth's 10th studio album, and 14th major release if live albums are included. It's important to remember that, and also to remember that somebody born when their debut album Orchid was released can now legally get drunk, smoke, and have sex in most of Europe. Important because it serves as a reminder that Opeth are human - something that Heritage seems to have shocked a lot of people with.Opeth, it's fair to say, are one of those bands that people can often subconsciously convince themselves are invincible.
B-sides and rarities collections can often help give fans insight into their favorite artists’ creative processes, or at the very least, provide either a light snack between releases or a post-retirement victory lap, but when an artist as prolific as Stephin Merritt decides to clean house, it can be a little underwhelming. Over the years, Merritt's seemingly endless supply of wry, melodic, basement electro-folk songs has required him to use multiple pseudonyms (Magnetic Fields, Buffalo Rome, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies), nearly all which of make an appearance on the Merge-issued Obscurities. At its best, the collection stirs up some left-field gems like “Forever and a Day” and “When You’re Young and in Love," both of which were pulled from an unfinished musical called The Song from Venus, and the breezy Wasps’ Nest outtake “Yet Another Girl,” but the rest tend to play out like the amiable, often lo-fi stopgaps they are, despite boasting some typically sinister, hysterical, gorgeous, and heartbreaking lyrics like “A vodka bottle gave you those raccoon eyes/We got beat up just for holding hands (“Take Ecstasy with Me”).
Co-nominees (along with maybe Ghostface Killah but not Craig Finn) for the Best Songwriter of Their Generation award, the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt and The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle share a seemingly inexhaustible well of not just songs and cleverness, but also concepts. That last one is what they’re most renowned for—but it’s also sort of what kills them. Sure, their reasons for earning that generational title are conceptual; the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs and The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed hang together as music and themes with few peers.
An illustrious musical career can produce a number of pleasing side-effects, not the least of which is a sort of fame that comes only with the field. More entertaining for all involved, though, is the ubiquitous rarities album that peppers careers and gives devoted fans a bit of a treat. Stephin Merritt’s Obscurities is exactly that: a nice topping on an already very good career.