Stephin Merritt, best known as the deep-voiced and depressive helmsman of The Magnetic Fields, is among the most prolific and eclectic songwriters of the era. Obscurities is an aptly named compilation of unreleased and hard-to-find songs from Merritt’s varied projects (five in all are represented here, for those keeping score: his own name, The Magnetic Fields, Buffalo Rome, The 6ths, and The Gothic Archies), and though it leap-frogs over the Jesus and Mary Chain aping of The Magnetic Fields’ Distortion, it makes a stop at most every other stylistic trope Merritt has tried, from ukulele ballads (“Forever and a Day”) to lo-fi haze-pop (“Beach-a-Boop-Boop”). The result? An astoundingly cohesive collection of some of Merritt’s best work.
Like a patchwork quilt, Obscurities blends distinct styles into a unified whole. First of all, the album has its share of elegant, romantic pop – both cheerful and forlorn. Stark opener “Forever and a Day” is, Merritt has said, the tune he wishes fans would play at their weddings, rather than the current staple, “The Book of Love.” Now that it’s out there, I imagine Merritt will get his wish; the song is gorgeous and (uncharacteristically) optimistic and un-ironic, but still clever: “You’ll never be alone/You’re my sine qua non/And I’m a baritone/Marry me.” The country ballad “Plan White Roses” is a Patsy Cline parody that everyone seems to take seriously. Easy mistake; it’s no sadder or sweeter than you’d expect of Merritt. It’s tongue-in-cheek in the subtlest way. “The Sun and the Sea and the Sky,” an outtake from 69 Love Songs, is a grim and soaring ode to the natural world that is easily Merritt’s best-kept secret and the finest song on the album. Over mournful electric guitar chords, Merritt bemoans and celebrates the inhumanity of nature. The chorus reveals that this is at least part a lost love ballad in disguise: “Let’s go out and frolic/‘Cause the sun and the sea and the sky/They will never make you cry/You can love them, and they don’t die/They don’t just die.”
Elsewhere, we’re treated to some of Merritt’s grooviest electronic pop. “Rats in the Garbage of the Western World” is a blistering and self-loathing tribute to The Cure, or so Merritt claims – I’m not sure I hear it. The lyrics are clever, the mix over-synthed to perfection. “Rot in the Sun” seethes delightfully with detached disdain at the pop music world to the groove of a distorted drum machine. Young Marble Giants’ Stuart Moxham provides the demure guest vocal to “Yet Another Girl,” a romp as catchy as it is delightfully carefree.
The rest of the tracks truly run the gamut in terms of style, but not in terms of quality; they are consistently excellent. Weakest is the alternate, much more electronic take of “I Don’t Believe You,” originally from The Magnetic Fields’ i, and its greatest sin is being good but worse than the original. It’s entirely made up for, anyway, by the alternate take of “Take Ecstasy With Me” from The Magnetic Fields’ Holiday, here with ethereal vocals from Magnetic Fields co-founder Susan Anway. Truly, there is not a throwaway here. If this was the bar we had set for rarities albums in general, I tremble to think what kind of brilliance we’d be hearing in albums proper.