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. Maybe Merritt spread himself a little too thin with projects like scoring the Lemony Snicket books and staging traditional Chinese operas for U.S. audiences or got a little too cutesy with more concept-minded Magnetic Fields albums, but the simplest explanation for why he hasn’t ascended the same heights again is that he probably just ran out of his best material, considering he used what, for most folks, is a career’s worth of songs on one album.
The aptly titled Obscurities is a nice reminder of what Merritt was like at the height of his powers from the mid- to late ‘90s, demonstrating he was already a prolific songwriter even before his ambitious masterpiece. So even though Obscurities consists of out-of-print singles, compilation tracks, and unreleased treats, its unearthed ephemera are representative examples of how Merritt can channel what’s a decidedly singular songwriting perspective into pieces that are sweet, sappy, and touching in an almost universal way. Opener “Forever and a Day”, most particularly, is a worthwhile entry in Merritt’s own version of The Great American Songbook, with its sparse, fragile ukulele and piano arrangement nicely embellishing Merritt’s wobbly baritone at its most tender. And considering Merritt has never shrunk from addressing social issues pertaining to sexual identity on his own terms in his own way, it’s hard not to want to read more into “Forever and a Day” as a prescient same-sex marriage theme, when he sings, “Our love is here to stay / Marry me / I’ll give you every color of the rainbow / They say it can’t be done, but what do they know?” It’s typical, though, that Merritt isn’t telling whether he’s saying what you think he might be, leaving the meaning ambiguous and letting it work on many levels all at once.
And when Merritt brings in his many female vocal contributors into the mix, his love songs become all the more complex and thought provoking as he messes with conventional notions of desire, gender, and identity. It’s a trademark move of Merritt’s to get your head spinning with songs by a boy sung by girls intended for either boys or girls, which comes through most suggestively on the alternate take of the Magnetic Fields’ cult favorite, “Take Ecstasy with Me”. While it might not be as rich and full in sound as the original that appears on Holiday, this version, with longtime co-conspirator Susan Anway doing the vocals instead of Merritt, recalls the early Magnetic Fields at their gender-troubling and mind-opening best, when the group made you think about pomo love songs written by a man performed by a woman that could work to describe just about any configuration of desire. Likewise, the countryish tearjerker “Plant White Roses”, featuring another frequent Magnetic Fields contributor Shirley Simms, is plaintive and poignant in a way that’s immediately appealing no matter who’s reaching out to whom.
But as Obscurities proves, Merritt isn’t just about heady treatises on love packaged as indie ditties—he’s just as adept churning out catchy pop songs, no matter what they’re about. There’s the plenty of the boisterous DIY synth-pop that got Merritt noticed to begin with on the collection, like the raucous “Rats in the Garbage of the Western World” and the cool-but-bothered “Yet Another Girl”, voiced by Young Marble Giants’ Stuart Moxham for the 6ths, Merritt’s contradiction-in-terms indie-celeb side-project. And his slicing wit and withering lyrics come through most powerfully on another 6ths song, “Rot in the Sun”, which, though a little outdated, skewers Hollywood and the alt-rock feeding frenzy of the ‘90s at the same time—“You can make an atrocious Top 40 record / No one will know in two weeks’ time,” Merritt tells it in the droll, acerbic way that only he can.
That said, there’s still a reason why some of these songs originally appeared on hard-to-find singles or remained unreleased for many years until now, since not everything on Obscurities is as fully-conceived as Merritt’s best work. In particular, much of the compilation’s second half is comprised of thin, almost tossed-off experiments, like the off-kilter, distracting “When I’m Not Looking, You’re Not There” and unexpectedly amateurish “Beach-a-Boop-Boop”. And aside from the wonderful “Forever and a Day”, the pieces from the uncompleted science fiction musical The Song from Venus are as gimmicky as the project seems on paper, giving you an idea of why the concept might not have taken off. Likewise, Merritt’s effort soundtracking the audiobook version of Coraline on “You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home” seems little more than compilation fodder offered here for completists only
While many of the cuts on Obscurities are pretty deep ones that won’t ultimately expose Merritt to a new audience or rewrite the book on his career, the album does capture a time when he had a Midas touch for making songs that were as catchy as they were provocative. In the end, Obscurities scratches that itch that compilations of its kind are supposed to, helping you relive your fond memories of an artist that inspired devotion, while reassuring you that you didn’t miss out on too much when you really, really cared.