By Lucy Dearlove
Stephin Merritt‘s musical output has always sounded a bit like the product of a parallel New York City universe; he sings about the Chelsea Hotel, but it’s in Manhattan where tangles of tiny guitars, Casio keyboards and bittersweet sad pop songs rattle down the streets and avenues like tumbleweed. While his later-recorded classic Magnetic Fields release 69 Love Songs was largely tight and precise production-wise, this collection of previously unreleased and side project material is full of barely tuneful vocals, shonky arrangements and what we’ll politely call lo-fi recordings. But it’s brilliant, a real gem of a record not only for die-hard Merritt fan boys and girls, but also for those making their first foray into his discography.
In fact, it’s a great place to start. Five tracks are previously unreleased, and the songs’ provenances range from 69 Love Songs outtakes (‘The Sun and the Sea and the Sky’: vetoed on the grounds it wasn’t about ‘romantic love.’), to the soundtrack to ‘The Song From Venus’, the as yet incomplete ‘science-fiction musical’ being co-written with the author Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snickett, to material from the musician’s side project The 6ths. It’s a real insight into a remarkable artist’s vast and varied repertoire.
Every track is drenched in Stephin Merritt; the vocals, the beeps and whistles. But there’s an amazing number of sub-genres here which shows how comfortable he is writing songs in staggeringly different styles. ‘Rats in the Garbage of the Western World’ sounds like a ’90s house floor-filler, if such a floor-filler can be recorded in a bin in a child’s bedroom, using only instruments and lyrical ideas found on the way in through the door. Opener ‘Forever and a Day’ is a taut, haunting uke ballad that would definitely make the lyrical love song cut.
Elsewhere, the acerbic, hipster-baiting ‘Scream (Til You Make the Scene) (choice lyric: “Write 12 simple songs with a beat”) is an infectious if marginally off-key disco hit with a killer baseline, and ‘Take Ecstasy With Me’ (reinterpreted brilliantly a few years back by !!!) is a rattly shoegaze number, complete with panpipes. There’s even a camp cabaret anthem, ‘When You’re Young and In Love’, which makes me happy, as in this parallel Manhattan (in my head), Merritt spends most evenings ensconced at the piano in a dingy club, belting out songs like this. Your ears are never allowed to rest, there’s always something surprising going on here.
It seems like a great time for him to release this; while 69 Love Songs, arguably his magnum opus, was unbelievably released 12 years ago, it’s obvious that there’s more to come from him. It feels cynical when artists release ‘rarities’ at a time when their current output has clearly dried up, but this has only whetted my appetite for more Merritt. I can’t express how excited I am about ‘The Song From Venus’, as it can only be as brilliantly bonkers as it sounds. Stephin Merritt is still one of the most exciting songwriters around, and this is an unmissable record for new and old fans alike.