With the colossal, near-overwhelming brilliance of 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt forever etched himself into alternative pop history. Few would have had the sheer audacity to have attempted an examination of love in all its forms stretched over three CDs and gently parodying just about every conceivable popular musical style. For sheer wit and verve alone, it was a masterstroke, never mind the fact that it contained so many wonderful songs.
Perhaps inevitably, Merritt has struggled a little to know exactly how to follow it. All his subsequent albums have contained some fine songs, but have struggled under the weight of conceptual burdens. There was the clever duality of Distortion and Realism, which might have worked a good deal better had it been encompassed as two halves of the same album. For all its dry irony, i might have been more of a silly idea than a clever one. At his best, his music works on many levels, regardless of whether you take him seriously (as some of his admirers evidently do), or whether you think he does everything with a knowing smirk.
At least in theory, Obscurities ought to be the carefree Merritt album that he’s so far studiously avoided making. It’s a collection that spans not only time but also his various monikers (The 6ths, Magnetic Fields and Gothic Archies tracks are all included). More importantly, it liberates Merritt from all his conceptual clutter. Indeed, there are some lovely moments that emphasise Merritt’s genius as a songwriter. Plant White Roses, credited to Buffalo Rome (the studio precursor to Magnetic Fields, featuring Merritt and his long term collaborator Claudia Gonson) is a gorgeous, touching acoustic lament, and The Sun And The Sea And The Sky (with Merritt himself singing in his deepest, most laconic delivery) is similarly mournful.
Unfortunately, Obscurities tends to favour Merritt’s preoccupation with toytown synth-pop, sometimes at the expense of his usually sharp melodic sense. Rot In The Sun and Rats In The Garbage Of The World make for grating, unsatisfying listening and the earlier version of I Don’t Believe You, full of quasi computer game sound effects, is markedly inferior to the breezy, folky take that appeared on i. It’s difficult not to reach the somewhat uncharitable conclusion that there were good reasons why these tracks were left locked in Merritt’s home studio vault.
There are, of course, moments when Merritt’s humour and musical playfulness come together with spectacular results. Scream (Till You Make The Scene) brilliantly pillories upstart young rock bands to an insistent beat (more cowbell!), whilst The Song From Venus is a wonderfully weird sci-fi waltz. Then there’s the Magnetic Fields classic Take Ecstasy With Me, included here in an early version with original vocalist Susan Anway, which somehow combines pan pipe sounds with a compelling quasi tribal-drum beat and gets away with it. Best of all is the ironic, uber-dry, dispassionate vocal delivery. Has taking ecstasy ever sounded so uninspiring?
Whilst Obscurities has its moments, it mostly only offers tiny hints of Merritt’s real genius. His love for trickery and obfuscation often get the better of him here, and the collection as a whole is a little scattershot and confusing for the ear. There’s also the lingering concern that, across his various monikers and through that substantial back catalogue, Merritt may now have covered all possible bases.