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Stephin Merritt: Obscurities

B

Stephin Merritt

Album: Obscurities
Label: Merge

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Stephin Merritt thrives on self-imposed constraints. Whether doing soundtrack work under his own name or releasing aesthetically and topically themed albums with The Magnetic Fields, Gothic Archies, or Future Bible Heroes, Merritt has always displayed an uncanny ability to cram visceral pleasures into high-concept packages. Obscurities seems purposeful in its lack of a singular purpose, compiling a far-reaching selection of singles, rarities, and unreleased music from the period leading up to the Magnetic Fields’ career-defining 1999 epic 69 Love Songs.

It’s a testament to Merritt’s conceptual discipline that a gorgeous 70th love song, “The Sun And The Sea And The Sky,” was omitted from that release for not being “actually about romantic love.” The original, 1995 7-inch version of “I Don’t Believe You” is a candy-colored dance party compared to the stifled hand-played rendition on 2004’s I, while an alternate version of Holiday’s synth-pop standout “Take Ecstasy With Me” with original Magnetic Fields singer Susan Anway is dated by corny synth flutes and faux-tribal drums. 

Some of the over-the-top pop gestures here lack the subtle pathos of Merritt’s best work, and would-be wedding song “Forever And A Day” seems weirdly bereft of his self-aware charisma. Still, even the relative missteps here are interesting, and speak to the consistencies of Merritt’s work across many projects and approaches. Rarities compilations are often perfunctory at best, but this is a refreshingly diverse release from a laser-focused songwriter.