Besting his tormentors doesn’t seem to be enough for Morrissey – there’s an almost pathological need to have the last word. Thankfully, that need is often married to a surprising inventiveness.
Defiant, unapologetic, vindicated: Morrissey breaches the peace again
Of all animals, it’s the underdog the British like best. The plucky trier, the comeback kid who limps his way home, bloodied but triumphant – he’s admired for his flawed victory, and somewhere within this equation lies Morrissey’s historic appeal. A wallflower’s wallflower, alienated even from his Christian name, with his group The Smiths (1982-87) the Mancunian singer articulated his emotional agonies in salty vernacular lines, delivering him to a level of adulation he must have thought unlikely for his species.
When The Smiths split, Morrissey was again an underdog – and began managing the first of the comebacks that have since punctuated his musical life. Having launched a solo career in 1988, new records ceased arriving in 1997, a phase ended by his return to recording in 2004. On the cover of that comeback album, the revitalised You Are the Quarry, he was photographed holding a machine gun – as if he had returned for vengeance, a kind of mob enforcer for sensitive people. Now, the prey turned hunter, Morrissey is back again.
This latest return has not solely been fuelled by appetite for his music. Mooted since 2006, the eventual delivery in October 2013 of Morrissey’s memoir Autobiography ratcheted up, with fortuitous timing, wider interest in a career that seemed on the ropes – though a big concert draw, Morrissey had been without a record deal for four years. The book’s best-selling litany of selective reminiscences, legal woes and delighted concert audiences primed him for an artistic comeback – and the return of an artist who, on a more pathological level, seemed determined to have the last word.
Autobiography runs to 400 pages, so a digest for the busy person might be in order. Duly: “Morrissey: perpetually doubted, and assailed by disagreeable people, is vindicated by the adoration of his many wise fans.” Clearly not a man to let things lie, both the book and his recent activity suggest Morrissey’s esprit de l’escalier has hardened into retrospective score-settling. In the present time, it seems, he will go out of his way to win victories denied to his younger self.
For a professed aesthete, it has led to some odd decisions. In the past few years, he has worked on reissues of his early albums, but rather than simply curating the artefacts, honouring the work, he has instead refurbished the material, changing the sleeve art – and more alarmingly, the track listings – of his records. Whatever the intention, it’s as if the decisions of the younger Morrissey – a wry wit, a vegetarian, for all his failings no fool – were being overturned by the desire of the middle-aged man to assert himself.
Occasionally, that has led to overcompensation. Morrissey’s last album, 2009’s Years of Refusal, staked a claim with unappetising heavy rock and blustery self-justification. On the surface, this new one works more stealthily. Mindful perhaps of his many fans in the Hispanic world, the mood of World Peace Is None of Your Business [Amazon.com] is not exclusively polished rock, but occasionally offers a Latin feel. Smiler with Knife even features castanets. Relieved of their obligations to hard-rock bombast, the guitarists Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias instead have become inventive. Album high point Istanbul features a guitar solo of an originality seldom seen in these parts.
Surprises abound. The album opens with Morrissey assuming the grotesque persona of a politician, blithely dismissing individual protest as a simple ignorance of how the world works. “The rich get richer,” he declaims, “the poor must stay poor.” We are instructed not to interfere, indeed to “kindly keep your nose out”. It’s a bold opening statement, particularly for an artist whose political feelings have sometimes proved controversial, but ultimately plays with a knowing wink to the gallery of his long-standing fans.
Throughout the album, in fact, Morrissey makes the kind of lyrical flourishes that we might have associated with his younger self. But what is witty and daring in a 30-year-old artist sometimes seems curmudgeonly or overstated from an older one. I’m Not a Man, for example, lists a selection of male characteristics and archetypes to which Morrissey does not conform, from “iceman” to “caveman” to “Casanova”. This would surely never have been a revelation to the singer’s empathy-crazed fans. Now it rather labours the point. Do we expect someone nearing their 60th birthday to still be boldly asserting their sense of self?
A memoir requires self-examination, and perhaps encouraged by that process, the album occasionally plays like an episode of the British TV show Who Do You Think You Are – in which celebrities explore how obscure family history may have shaped their identity. Late in the album we find Mountjoy, which addresses – with references to 17th-century Anglo-Irish history – Morrissey’s own Irish heritage. The closing Oboe Concerto, meanwhile, confronts mortality to a tune reminiscent of Death of a Disco Dancer by The Smiths – another historical fact he can’t escape. “All the best ones are dead,” Morrissey moans. He says he has been pushed forward to fill “their place in the queue”.
Elsewhere on the album, Morrissey sounds more axiomatic. Kick the Bride Down the Aisle casts disapproval on a forthcoming marriage, suggesting all the bride wants is a meal ticket: once married, all she will do is “laze and graze”. There is a joke about a cow in the next verse. In The Bullfighter Dies, meanwhile, Morrissey celebrates this unusual outcome of the traditional Spanish contest. Outrageously for one who opposes animal cruelty, the singer often likes to shoot fish in a barrel.
That’s not to say that the singer’s former wit and resourcefulness have been abandoned by the older man’s need to be dogmatic. Neal Cassady Drops Dead offers a reminder that this remains a playful and creative lyricist, in fine voice. Here, Morrissey paints a disrespectful deathbed tableau where “Allen Ginsberg’s tears shampoo his beard”. An amusing enough idea, but it’s when this very strange song enters its rap component that Morrissey really hits his stride.
Yes, you would have to call it the rap component. From his starting point among Beat writers, Morrissey mysteriously continues the song with a list of 19th-century infant ailments. “Nipper full of fungus … Junior full of gangrene … The little fella, has got rubella.” It feels as if it’s all coming naturally to him again and it’s very funny indeed.
The upbeat Kiss Me a Lot continues the vaguely nostalgic look at Morrissey iterations past. Here, he demands a lover’s kiss in the black and white world of the 1960s kitchen sink drama (“The stockyard, the dockyard, your mammy’s backyard …”), that he helped rehabilitate in the 1980s. It’s as guileless as something you might once have heard sung by Cilla Black or – erstwhile Morrissey collaborator – Sandie Shaw. Staircase at the University, about parental pressure to succeed, revisits another traditional Morrissey theme, the barbarity of formal education.
The world of Istanbul – tough boys, gangs, lives changed by violence – has been a constant in Morrissey’s solo career, from 1988’s Asian Rut to 2004’s First of the Gang to Die. Here, to a tune not unlike The Smiths’ Shoplifters of the World Unite (the opening song in Morrissey concerts these days), he pictures himself not merely swooning over gang tattoos, but as a concerned adoptive uncle, guiltily suggesting that a violent tragedy has been caused because he failed to provide the necessary guidance: “I lean into a box of pine,” he sings, “identify the kid as mine …”
It’s a moment of poignant humanity on an album that hasn’t always seemed particularly supportive of the frailty of human beings – if we believe I’m Not a Man, Morrissey feels more compassion for a sausage than he does a soldier – the very foundation on which his reputation is built. Perhaps, as he suggests on Smiler with Knife, one of the more experimental tracks here, he’s simply voicing the opinions everyone holds, but remain unuttered. Perhaps his eccentric worldview has simply evolved into right-wing libertarianism. Don’t expect life to do you any favours, he sometimes seems to be saying. You can either tough it out as I have done, or perish.
Back amid the jokes of Neal Cassady Drops Dead he asked: “Victim, or life’s adventurer – which of the two are you?” It’s a fair question. But having bested his tormentors, the challenge of Morrissey’s next act may be to make sure he doesn’t become a bully himself.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.