Stephin Merritt is best known to most in the guise of the Magnetic Fields, a band that released the superb 69 Love Songs. The album was critically acclaimed, made number 2 in our Top 100 albums list, and has proved to be a hard act to follow. Since it was released Merritt has spread himself a little thinly over a number of different releases by The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, The Future Bible Heroes and under his own name. His latter Magnetic Fields albums have remained interesting, with a number of stand-out tracks, but have been a bit single minded at times.
For a fan like me they have all been releases worth investing in, offering enough flashes of brilliance to justify the cover price, and I can forgive him having trouble matching an album that had as many ideas as most artists manage in a career.
His latest release, Obscurities, collects b-sides, compilation tracks, alternative versions and unreleased songs from his time recording for Merge records in 1994-1999 and earlier. Merritt is the only musician on most of the tracks, with some drum and vocal contributions from other artists, and the bulk of the songs have a home recorded feel. Listening to a couple of the songs you understand why they weren’t used on a full album release, but in the most part the quality of tracks is high, and the selection never less than interesting.
‘Forever and a Day’, ‘The Song From Venus’, and ‘When You’re Young and in Love’ aren’t the albums strongest tracks, but they do leave you wondering how they might have turned out if he had completed the sci-fi musical, of which they were meant to be part, had been completed in collaboration with Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket). ‘Yet Another Girl’ is a piece of bouncy synth pop that is made more interesting by having Young Marble Giants’ Stuart Moxham on vocals (under the 6ths moniker). ‘You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home’ is another interesting curio, written for the audio-book of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
The real joy of this record is hearing the development and perfecting of the Merritt sound as a work in progress. Better examples of some of the songs can be heard on full magnetic Fields albums, but hearing the experimentation and refinement as a work in progress is fascinating.
Two of the songs here appear in different forms of official Magnetic Fields releases, and are two of the best tracks on the compilation. ‘I Don’t Believe You’ isn’t quite the match of the version that appeared on the synth-free I album, but it is still a great track and the addition of synths and 8-bit video game sounds give it a different feel. ‘Take Ecstasy With Me’, a track that appeared on Holiday, is sung here by the original Magnetic Fields vocalist Susan Amway and is superior to the album version.
This is a difficult album to score or fully recommend, it certainly isn’t a good starting point for people new to Merritt’s work, and it won’t appeal to everyone who loved 69 Love Songs. However, if you are a more committed fan of his work, and want to delve a little bit deeper into his catalogue, then you will find a lot to enjoy. It is a compilation that acts as a great companion piece to the career of this most singular and unusual musical talent.
By Dorian Rogers