Album Reviews

Stephin Merritt – Obscurities

on September 01, 2011, 7:59am
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Stephin Merritt‘s place in the pantheon of brilliant songwriters was confirmed around the time of The Magnetic Fields’ majestic, three-volume 69 Love Songs (1999), which carved out magnificent explorations of love in all its complexity. It positioned Merritt as one of the most protean, witty songwriters working today, recalling the work of Gershwin, Porter, Sondheim, and, at different turns, Randy Newman taking it to the dance floor.

Before and after 69 Love Songs, Merritt has shown his great, idiosyncratic artistry: through the centrally placed vocals on 1996’s EP, The House of Tomorrow, or the strange, swirling songs on 2008’s Distortion, or projects such as the collaboration with Chen Shi-zheng on Showtunes (2006), or work on films such as Pieces of April.

So, Obscurities is just as you might imagine, full of the musical bric-a-brac and diverse preoccupations of his life and imagination so far. The record contains a variety of songs that have been previously featured on compilations and out of print singles, along with unreleased material.”Forever and a Day” sets the tone, with its sparse, tinkly ukelele and wobbly piano as a perfect foil for his searingly deep and beautiful vocal, complimenting clever lyrics that also carry an emotional weight. In one breath he wryly sings, “and I’m a baritone, marry me” (as good a reason as any) but follows up with the more sincere “I know it’s a cliché, but I will love you come what may,” which somehow manages to wither the heart. In fact, this coalescing of the wry and sincere is what marks his work out; he makes timeworn sentiments seem not only new but necessary.

The Great American Songbook holds a ghostly hand over his work, but there is also a sense of Roy Orbison at his shoulder, guiding him to shore. Perhaps it is in the understanding (that Orbison certainly experienced) of pain, a theme which Merritt navigates carefully, sparingly–melding sentimentality and realism. He also experiments not only with more traditional songwriting but with his own versions of songs. For example, “Take Ecstasy With Me” features Susan Anway on vocals instead of Merritt (as was the case on the version on Holiday),which adds a delightful, feminine touch, as Shirley Simms does on the country-inflected “Plant White Roses”, all serving to confuse the boundaries of gender, love, and desire.

Merritt’s electronic experimentation and sense of pop are present on something like “Rats in the Garbage of the Western World” and the catchy “Rot in the Sun”, which sounds like a jaunty mix of New Order and Jesus and Mary Chain on a summer’s day. There are many songs that have a deceptive lightness of touch, such as 6th’s song “Yet Another Girl” (with Young Marble Giants’ Stuart Moxham), which sounds like something Belle & Sebastian might have breathed upon, as does “Scream (Till You Make the Scene)”, which also has its roots in a more British pop sensibility.

“The Song From Venus” sounds like something that evolved out of the golden period of 40’s and 50’s songbooks and is as lovely as they come, with squelching sounds and layering of harmonies, with Merritt’s voice elevating it further; even the way it fades out suggests he is not only filtering the past but paying homage to living ghosts. However, the past pops up in a far more direct way with the cheeky garage pop of “Beach-a-Boop-Boop”; it was at this point that Brian Wilson came to mind, perhaps in terms of the childlike vision–the mixture of naivete and brilliance that so much of his best work contains.

The best thing about the collection is the way it reminds us that Merritt is a Janus-like songwriter, looking backwards and forwards, and while we can see influences from the past, there is also the sense that Merritt has often looked into the future. You can see the prophesying of that certain mix of indie dance-pop in something like “Take Ecstasy With Me” or “You’re Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home”, and his voice so often brings to mind John Maus; perhaps this is also because they share a common ground in terms of their loose, but deliberate exploding of conventional songwriting. It reminds us that Merritt can go absolutely anywhere from one song to the next, indie-pop to folk-rock, from The 6ths to The Gothic Archies. On “The Sun and the Sea and the Sky”, he sings, “The sun and the sea and the sky, they will never make you cry.” But his voice just might.

Essential Tracks: “Forever and a Day”, “Yet Another Girl”, and “The Song From Venus”

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Stefan
September 4, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Excellent review! “Randy Newman taking it to the dance floor”, is a great line. The Janus statement is dead on too, Merritt’s output from ’91-’99 will still be relevant and in step with the times 30 years from now just like  Porter, Carmichael and the like. He’s a true “tunesmith” and it’s a shame a lot of people don’t recognize that rare talent, or as a result of his voice and subject matter feel it is more novelty music than real songwriting. It’s not that you need to be aware of people like Gershwin, but sometimes I wish people would be more aware of what this type of songwriting entails. Continually coming up with strong melody is fucking hard! Never mind churnning them out like they are going out of style. Only a certain few can do it. Plus the lyrics these guys (from Gershwin, Newman, to Merritt) used are so well phrased and thought out that they are that exceptional breed of completely universal and relatable while simutaniously feeling deeply unique and personal.

The kids may want to start with !!!’s cover of ”Take Ecstasy With Me” if they need some sort of bizzare stamp of approval.   

Stefan
September 5, 2011 at 7:11 am

Plus, look at that cover art!

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