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Music Review | ‘Obscurities’ by Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt has a way of clinging to my brainstem as though it’s a vine in a jungle, and he’s a monkey bent on boosting all of the bananas in my brain. Since I am completely and totally bananas – my wife will freely attest to my apelike nature – my brain is a place where Merritt and his melodies are free to swing from thought to thought and tree to tree like so many synaptic Tarzans.

This is an overcomplicated way of saying that Stephin Merritt and his music have taken up residence in my brain. He has applied for citizenship in my psyche, and I have granted his request because I love his music enough to let it have free reign in the whimsical wilderness of my imagination. His sonorous baritone feels like home to me.

This week MERGE records released Obscurities, a collection of Stephin Merritt B-Sides. For most artists, B-sides are a form of refuse from a recording session – leftovers, material for the vault, or even waste products in some cases. But Merritt is not “most artists.” That is, when Stephin Merrit walks into the bathroom to rid himself of – ahem – waste, he leaves a cache of diamonds behind in that porcelain bowl.

Merritt is the enigmatic frontman of the Magnetic Fields – the band responsible for 69 Love Songs, which is among my top five albums of all time. It is literally 69 songs long, spanning three discs, and lasting almost three hours. Failure to own and appreciate that record, in my estimate, should result in expulsion from the human race. (Preferably by being transformed into a copy of 69 Love Songs, so some other lost soul can own it and thereby avoid likewise being transformed into a copy of 69 Love Songs.) So many songs from that record have a way of popping up unbidden like slices of toast in my brain. Any songwriter capable of transforming the human subconscious into a toaster is worth taking seriously – take my word for it.

But Merritt’s work does not begin and end with the Magnetic Fields. He is also a member of the Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths (say this ten times fast, along with the titles of the band’s two albums, Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles), and the Gothic Archies as well. The latter outfit released a soundtrack of sorts to Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, titled The Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events. Merritt’s Droopy-the-Dog-as-a-Vampire voice fits the Lemony Snicket franchise well. Merritt also collaborated with writer and fellow basement-of-the-brain-dweller Neil Gaiman, crafting songs for the musical version of Gaiman’s novella Coraline. In an anomalous artistic move, Merritt released the cripplingly cryptic (try saying that ten times fast, too) solo album Showtunes in 2006, which featured musical theater pieces he wrote for Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng. While I have not quite “absorbed” that one yet, as John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity would say, it does intrigue me.

Merritt is openly gay and a self-proclaimed auteur. He has been accused of being a racist in the past, but he is also talented times ten to the Nth degree. His records present the palette with a pucker-inducing blend of drunken romanticism, dark comedy, bitterness, deadpan irony, and sincerity. It’s a tonal juggling act, but Merritt is a showman who rarely drops one of his knives unless he is plunging another into the heart of someone who has likewise stabbed him.

Obscurities is essentially more of the same from Merritt, if indeed one can ever say such a thing about a man with such a varied vitae. The album opens up with “Forever and a Day,” which is one of Merritt’s romantic reveries. Upon hearing him describe his partner as his “sine qua non,” the listener is reminded that he or she is not in Top 40 Kansas anymore.

The second song, “The Rats in the Garbage of the Western World,” is the sort of electro-pop at which Merritt excels. Under overdriven synthesizer lines that pop and fizz, Merritt paints darkly comedic pictures when he sings lines like, “I want to shoot you and hang you on my wall / but there’s no film in my Polaroid.” To buy this man’s album is to get tickets to his circus as well – a bargain if you ask me.

Next is a stellar synth-pop remake of “I Don’t Believe You,” which originally appeared on the Magnetic Fields’ album i. Each song title on that particular record began with the letter “i,” furthering suspicions that Mr. Merritt might be slightly self-absorbed. Of course, if I possessed his genius, I might marvel at myself, too. This version of the song outshines the original, and the same can be said of the version of “Take Ecstasy with Me” that appears here (which originally appeared on the Magnetic Fields’ Holiday LP).

Folk song “Plant White Roses” feels as though it has always existed – as if it didn’t even need Merritt to write it. Nonetheless, in its moroseness it is vintage Merritt. “Plant white roses / I want to die / if I can’t spend my life with you,” guest vocalist Shirley Simms sings. It is practically a plea for a funeral, and it is as beautiful as it is desperate.

My favorite song on the record, “Rot in the Sun,” is next. It is entirely encased in chrome, and it feels like the product of songwriting robots who have taken too much of whatever the robotic equivalent of Prozac is. I play it repeatedly and become the monkey who cannot help but press the button that causes the machine to dispense infinite bananas.

Not all of Stephin Merritt’s leavings are diamonds. “Scream (Till You Make the Scene)” and “Beach-a-Boop-Boop,” for example, are middle-of-the-road fare when compared to their author’s best work, but middle-of-the-road is a far cry from bottom-of-the-barrel. Give me a Stephin Merritt B-side any day over a Smash Mouth A-side.

On the whole, however, many of these throw aways are keepers. Obscurities is definitely a must-have for Merritt completists. Those unfamiliar with, say, 69 Love Songs should first pour the contents of that record in their skulls. When you least expect it, you will find Stephin Merritt lurking at the base of your brainstem, and at least some of you will welcome his presence.

 

 

Chad Thomas Johnston is an aspiring author, sonuva’ preacha’ man, PhD-dropout, singer/songwriter, daydreaming doodler, cinemaddict, & pop-culture obsessive. He is represented by Seattle, WA-based literary agent Jenée Arthur, who is currently shopping his manuscript, The Stained Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind, to major publishing houses. Chad is happily married to Rebekah Christine, and lives in Lawrence, KS with his wife and five cats. Chad and Rebekah look forward to welcoming Baby Evie into the fracas of their frantic fold in October 2011. Visit Chad at his subterranean, subcutaneous Interweb lair: http://chadthomasjohnston.com/