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Stephin Merritt - Obscurities

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Artist: Stephin Merritt

Album: Obscurities

Label: Merge

Review date: Aug. 15, 2011

Even if one isn’t familiar with much of the material that it collects, it’s hard to approach Merge’s compilation of Stephin Merritt’s Obscurities without having the sense of already having heard it. The album collects Merritt’s b-sides, compilation cuts, and a few unreleased tracks from the pre-69 Love Songs period -- in other words, the years he recorded for Merge. Luckily, this has in hindsight proved to be Merritt’s clear peak, so Obscurities gives us, at risk of being overly simplistic, the cast-offs from a pretty strong set of material.

Whether through the strength of the material or through sheer force of contrast with Merritt’s recent career low Realism, however, Obscurities manages to be an uncommonly enjoyable odds-and-ends collection. Even the songs that seem a bit haphazard, tossed off, or incomplete here are, unlike the material on Realism, rather endearingly spontaneous and playful. The lo-fi synth tracks, strongest among them The Cure tribute “Rats in the Garbage of the Western World” and the previously unreleased “Scream (Till You Make the Scene)” both display a deadpan silliness (sample lyric: “Write 12 simple songs with a beat / shriek words like a bitch in heat”) that he doesn’t seem to be able to pull off anymore. Stronger still are the three unreleased tracks from Merritt’s unfinished musical The Song From Venus, co-written by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). Opener “Forever and a Day” ranks with Merritt’s best love songs, while the sci-fi burbles of “The Song From Venus” (“Little green men are singing / of all the love they’re bringing”) and the buoyant “When You’re Young and in Love,” show Merritt at his most wide-eyed and childish.

Even the alternate versions and sparse tracks are strong. Despite the replacement of Merritt’s vocal with what sounds like a quick run-through by Susan Anway, “Take Ecstasy With Me” bests the original (from 1994’s Holiday) with a fuller, dancier arrangement, while the less polished and synth-heavy “I Don’t Believe You” holds its own with the version that later appeared on 2004’s i. Unreleased 69 Love Songs outtake “The Sun and the Sea and the Sky” performed by Merritt on solo acoustic guitar, and the Shirley Simms-sung Patsy Cline-tribute “Plant White Roses” both find Merritt at his most expressive and melancholically romantic. While it wouldn’t be fair to hold Obscurities up to Merritt’s 1990s albums with The Magnetic Fields and others, the material here certainly makes a strong claim for achieving next-best-thing status, providing a welcome nostalgic reminder of the many pleasures offered by what has already more or less become a nostalgia act.

By Michael Cramer

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