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.
As far as these kinds of collections go, Obscurities is a well assembled and generous one. It focuses on the period prior to Merritt’s magnum opus, 1999’s 69 Love Songs, and reminds us of his love of eletro-pop and acoustic ballads, before he joined Nonesuch and used each record as a new genre exploration. The set doesn’t necessarily show him building to his famous triple-record, but instead makes a case for Merritt as a long-standing great songwriter, one who could make you laugh at one moment (“Rot in the Sun”) and cry the next (“The Sun and the Sea and the Sky”) all the while winking at you. The seven-inch version of “I Don’t Believe You” is perhaps best representative of this period for Merritt. The song would eventually end up on the orchestral-pop-leaning I in 2004, but the blippy version here is heady and swirling and great. It avoids the clean lines of his recent records and revels in mid-fi electronics.
For most fans, though, the unreleased stuff is what they’re most interested in, particularly because some of it comes from an abandoned sci-fi musical Merritt has been working on with Daniel Handler (nee Lemony Snicket). The musical, titled The Song of Venus, seems like it would have been pretty scattered based on the songs that represent it here. “Forever and a Day” is a sweet ukulele piece, straightforwardly presenting Merritt’s ironic croon in all its glory, but “The Song from Venus” is a murky curiousity, mixing various vocal parts with underwater blips and boops to haunting effect.
The two songs, odd in their juxtaposition, are bound to please members of the cult of Merritt, but there is some unreleased material that stands out a bit more here. “Scream (Until You Make the Scene)” is a wonderful bit of gloomy electro-pop, with a hook recalling Gary Numan’s “Cars” and Merritt’s voice sounding, for once, unaffected and all the stronger for it. But the true highlight on this collection comes in “The Sun and the Sea and the Sky.” It was left off 69 Love Songs –song number 70, if you will — because it wasn’t about “romantic” love, but it’s as fine a song as Merritt can offer. It’s a simple acoustic ballad with Merritt sighing over the inherent meaningless of rain, autumn, etc. He negates the symbolism of nature, but then uses that as an excuse to explore it. Nature doesn’t mean anything, Merritt tells us, but it also won’t leave you. It’s funny and heartbreaking and exactly what you expect from him, and yet it manages to surprise with how affecting it is.
Other parts don’t fare so well. “Beach-a-Boop-Boop” is a too-thin pop tune, a b-side left off some album for a reason, while another b-side “Rats in the Garbage of the Western World” is too ascerbic or too ironic (it’s hard to tell with Merritt) for its own good. Still, Obscurities is not the mixed bag most rarity collection are. For every “Beach-a-Boop-Boop” there’s a “Plant White Roses,” sung beautifully in this version by fellow Magnetic-Fielder Susan Anway.
This is all to say that if you’ve made your mind up on Stephin Merritt in all his musical endeavors — this does include songs from his other groups the 6ths and the Gothic Archies, though the focus is on the Fields — Obscurities isn’t likely to change your mind one way or another. Still, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss this set out of hand. It’s got some purely great pop songs on it, enough that in spots it rises out of that fan-only ghetto, even if other moments find it falling back in.