For me, reading Autobiography last year was like finding a stack of letters from your first crush: a reminder of exactly why you were once so besotted with them, and how what to others might seem to be foibles and flaws are just lovable quirks. A friend of mine told me that he couldn’t bring himself to like the Morrissey of Autobiography because he was too self-indulgent, too self-analytical, too self-aware. These, essentially, are the reasons why I think the Morrissey of Autobiography is brilliant – and why he was also the popstar that I was most obsessed with as a teenager. Sure, Kurt Cobain was angry, Ian Curtis was tortured, Brett Anderson sexy and exciting, PJ Harvey an otherworldly force of nature. But Morrissey was all of those things and more: proof that you could be miserable but witty, that you could feel like an outsider but still know a secret that no-one else could fathom, that you could feel crushingly inferior and yet find the rest of the human race a joke. To the 15-year-old me that felt like the greatest lesson in the world. Even now, if I shun an invitation to the pub or (ye fucking Gods) a nightclub and get called boring or dull, I remember Steven Patrick’s aprophism that “I would never, ever do anything as vulgar as having fun” and feel alright.
But listening to Morrissey, of course, is fun. In fact, while I sometimes dearly wish that the term Guilty Pleasures – with its associations of horrible, ironic banter and smirking bellends singing ‘Summer Of 69’ – be banished forever, Morrissey’s albums feel like a guilty pleasure in the proper sense: it should feel somehow naughty or decadent to enjoy wallowing in those withering put-downs and self-flagellations, but it never does.
So: Morrissey has a new single out now and a new album, ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’, in the pipeline. Let’s remind ourselves of how he got there.
9. ‘Kill Uncle’ (1991)
Haranguing Morrissey for the crimes of ‘Kill Uncle’ feels a bit like bullying a pathetic child: mercilessly poking fun at a helpess so-and-so who’s not even solely culpable for their wrongdoing. In reality, it’s the clunky hands of makeshift guitarist Mark E Nevin and producers Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer who make things difficult here – a unit of musicians drafted in after ties with producer Stephen Street had been severed, but were nothing more than a haphazard fix for a haphazard album. It’s little wonder that Morrissey himself has described it as a “pale and pasty” blight upon his discography; ‘The Harsh Truth Of The Camera Eye’ in particular is an ill-fitting match of a sour, scabrous lyrical attack and a musical arrangement that smacks of dour cabaret or a drab evening at the Cirque-de-Nuage, while ‘Tony The Pony’ is a lifeless, listless plod. But while Morrissey might complain of the album’s “session musician embalming fluid”, he’s not sparkling so brightly himself, either, and if he’s not the one who made the mess, he’s certainly not done much to mop it up, either – as little charm as there is to the rinky-dink whimsy of ‘King Leer’ and schlocky am-dram of ‘Mute Witness’, neither are helped by the banal, heavy-handed lyrics. ‘There’s A Place In Hell For Me And My Friends’ and ‘I’m The End Of The Family Line’ aside, it’s a flat, uneven and inconsequential record – and for a popstar like Morrissey, there can’t be any greater sin than that.
8. ‘Maladjusted’ (1997)
In The Lion In Love, a play by Morrissey’s literary heroine Sheilagh Delaney, one character grumbles: “I am here and I am safe and I am sick of it.” Morrissey’s weakest albums tend to be blotched with a similarly restless boredom, too, when the sly and wicked wit gives way to a sense of routine-induced weariness, and the desire to push things forward is outweighed by a retreat into cosier and more comfortable territory. In fact, I once developed a half-brained theory that the pedestrian ‘Roy’s Keen’ embodied the tired flaws of ‘Maladjusted’ perfectly, for those very reasons: whereas once Morrissey had sung the praises of footballer Eric Cantona, a swashbuckling and enigmatic Frenchman, he’d now plumped for (a laboured pun on) the gruff, irritable and decidedly more dour Roy Keane instead: a tell-tale switch from madcap artistry to workmanlike graft.
Here, then, is an album slightly bereft of the usual charm and charisma. ‘Roy’s Keen’ itself is a by-the-numbers Moz single, an ode to a charming window cleaner that’s as trivial as it is trite, and ‘Alma Matters’ feels like the work of Morrissey-by-proxy: a song which feels like a mundane mirror of past glories or an ersatz imitation of classic jangly pop. There’s fleeting spots of brilliance – the fretful ‘Trouble Loves Me’, the mellow mope of ‘Wide To Receive’ and the experimental half-prog of ‘Papa Jack’ – but it’s still Morrissey treading clumsily upon the turf, rather than gliding gracefully over it.
7. ‘Southpaw Grammar’ (1995)
Time has treated ‘Southpaw Grammar’ curiously. In Morrissey lore, it’s become strangely twinned with ‘Maladjusted’: a pair of relics which serve as proof of a mid-90s sluggish slump. I’ve never been quite so convinced. Neither are perfect (although, for my money, ‘Southpaw…’ is certainly stronger), but they’re such different albums it seems odd to couple them together. ‘Maladjusted’ ultimately fell flat because, for the most part, it’s too safe. But ‘Southpaw…’ is unnervingly odd and wilfully discombobulating. How else to describe the dank, eerie noise assault of 11-minute opener ‘The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils’? A song which sampled Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and turned the well-worn Moz territory of unruly pupils and gruesome teachers into a bleak dystopian drone that’s more ‘Battle Royale’ than ‘The Bash Street Kids’? Or the relentless and abrasive ‘The Operation’, which opens with a near-three minute drum solo, or the swansong ‘Southpaw’ – a dark, menacing thing which slithers this way and that and clocks in at an intimidating 600-seconds long. Whether your ideal vision of Morrissey involves him giving the glad-eye to prog and the avant-garde is another question, but the riskiness and the daring – that can’t be faulted.
6. ‘Years Of Refusal’ (2009)
“I’m doing very well,” sings Morrissey on ‘Something Is Squeezing My Skull’. “It’s a miracle I’ve made it even this far.” It’s a sarcastic quip, of course: a glum understatement from the High Priest Of Self-Deprecation as he gets increasingly fidgety about middle-age and mortality. But it’s a heart-on-sleeve reflection, too, of the journey he’s been through: from miserable youth to international superstar, from the grimy streets of working-class Manchester to the swanky high-life in LA. He has one eye on the future, and there’s three songs here in particular – the flamenco flourish and graveyard goodbye of ‘When I Last Spoke To Carol’, the doomy, debt collector-induced suicide of ‘Mama Lay Softly In The Riverbed’ and the sparse ode to a fallen hero ‘You Were Good In Your Time’ – which deal explicitly with the morbid, looming presence of death.
But he’s looking backwards, too, clucking his tongue and gently tut-tutting at the young, foppish romantic he used to be. The classic Smiths’ torch song ‘There Is A Light…’ found Morrissey praying for a car wreck so he and the object of his desires could be fused together forever. Some 30 years later with ‘That’s How People Grow Up’, and unrequited love isn’t such a chore anymore. “I was driving my car, I crashed and broke my spine,” he sings dryly. “So yes, there are things worse in life than never being someone’s sweetie.” This, then, is how Morrissey grows up: more measured, less bothered by rejection, but just as withering.
5. ‘You Are The Quarry’ (2004)
I can still remember the day I bought ‘You Are The Quarry’ from WH Smiths, handed to me by a frowning woman who muttered disapprovingly ‘Oh God, he’s back, is he?’ Back then, I thought it was the definitive up-yours comeback and a hearty slap for the doubters and crowers. 10 years later I’m not quite so enamoured with it as a whole, but I still love the fire and the fury behind it; the way that lead single ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ took aim at the age-old crimes of the monarchy and Oliver Cromwell but still scoured modern politics, too, or the blinkered fast-food, slow-brain conservatism of the US on ‘America Is Not The World’, or the police-baiting polemic of ‘The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores’.
In many ways, ‘You Are The Quarry’ is such a note-perfect embodiment of all things Morrissey that it plays almost like a Greatest Hits collection: the galloping blitz of ‘Irish Blood…’, the roguish romanticism of ‘First Of The Gang To Die’, the me-against-the-world gripes of ‘How Could Anyone Possibly Know How I Feel’, the hilariously pompous ‘I Have Forgiven Jesus’ (which, even more hilariously, was released as a Christmas single). Perhaps it’s almost too slick for its own good – an album which, after the critical backlash, leaves nothing to chance and is so Morrissey-like it that it’s constantly good rather than surprisingly great. That grouchy woman in WH Smiths would have hated it, though, I’m sure – and how I am glad for that.
4. ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ (2006)
My brain’s been doing plenty of flip-flops in the battle of ‘You Are The Quarry’ vs ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’. And, to paraphrase Morrissey himself, the body’s ruled the mind here: ‘You Are The Quarry’ may be the objectively superior album, but ‘Ringleader…’ has sentimental might on its side. Or, to be more precise, it has the unforgettable live performance I witnessed of ‘Life Is A Pigsty’ at a gig at the London Palladium, where it was turned into an absorbing, gong-smashing, rain-spattering epic on life and love, death and despair. Again, there’s a much-stated misconception that Morrissey is a perpetual pessimist and hopelessly moribund, but there’s always been hope in his lyrics – and here, as cymbals crash and thunderstorms rage and life ebbs away, his last words are “Even now in the final hour of my life I’m falling in love again”. For Morrissey the world may be a largely dark and dismal place, there’s always a flicker of light that never goes out.
I’m a sucker, too, for the Ennio Morricone influences writ large on ‘Ringleader…’, and the way it comes on like a love-letter to Rome: the references to Italian film directors Pasolini and Visconti on the glam stomp of ‘You Have Killed Me’ and the gorgeous orchestral sweep (arranged by Morricone himself) on the Spaghetti Western-aping desire of ‘Dear God Please Help Me’. Of course, ‘In The Future When All Is Well’ and ‘On The Streets I Ran’ are more solid than truly spectacular; in fact, I’d go as far to say that there are more songs which are merely serviceable than on ‘You Are The Quarry’, which is a more consistently strong listen. But for me, the highs here just hit that little bit harder.
3. ‘Your Arsenal’ (1992)
Thank the lord that Morrissey’s never been shy of swinging his boot at the rumps of those who let him down. Working with the same group of musicians who journeyed with him into the dull frontier of ‘Kill Uncle’ would be unthinkable; to use a poorly-chosen backing team once would be misfortune, but to do it twice would be careless. Instead, guitarists Alan Whyte and Baz Boorer were recruited, and Bowie-cohort Mick Ronson was chosen as producer. Inevitably, ‘Your Arsenal’ rattles, right from the opening shell-blast and heavy, twin-guitar assault of ‘You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side’, and there’s nods to glam-rock, Bowie and T Rex on the likes of ‘Glamorous Glue’ and ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday’. It’s arguably one of the slickest and smartest Morrissey albums: ‘The National Front Disco’ is a glammy dancefloor stomper-romper that’s also a withering satire on neo-Nazis, and ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful’ crunching, muscular indie-pop in which Morrissey sends up his own monstrous ego. “They say ,’Oh you have loads of songs, So many songs, more songs than they can stand,” he winks knowingly on the latter, embracing the role of outrageous, bitter and misunderstood pariah – here, though, he’s never been more wrong.
2. ‘Viva Hate’ (1988)
It’s difficult, now, to understand just how much Morrissey had to prove with ‘Viva Hate’. The Smiths, after all, had been built on the Moz-Marr axis, a rare partnership of genius-meets-genius skill in which their talents were supremely and equally matched. And unlike Marr, who in the aftermath of their messy divorce was able to carry on working by slipping into the background and project-hopping from band to the next (The Pretenders, The The and Electronic, to name but three), Morrissey had to stand by himself, on his own: a float-or-flounder test to be carried out in public.
It’s unsurprising, then, that ‘Viva Hate’ is the most Smiths-like of any of Morrissey’s solo work: stylistically it’s a companion piece to ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ with its bruised, grandiose and vibrant pop, and an overwhelming focus on the classic, jangly guitar riffs that his old band had been most strongly associated with. What might have been a shock, though, is just how accomplished it sounds, sure-footed and confident without n’ary a hint of doubt or tentativeness. The two best-known tracks, the singles ‘Suedehead’ and ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’, are also among the best: the former about a clandestine love riddled with covert looks, hidden meanings and secret frustration, packaged in a riff so pristine and so perfect it must have felt like Soma for bereaved Smiths fans; the latter a wonderfully spiteful loathe-letter to grey and dull old England. But there’s greatness everywhere, here: ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’ is one of Morrissey’s most astonishing songs, period, a brooding and mournful waltz down memory lane in which he revisits the old places and faces which spawned a monster, crooning “Where the world’s ugliest boy became what you see – here I am, the ugliest man”. And there’s such wide scope, too – a range that veers from the sweeping strings and splendour of ‘Dial A Cliche’ to the electro-spike whirr of ‘Break Up The Family’ to the spiteful rage of ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’. Viva Hate, Viva Morrissey.
1. ‘Vauxhall And I’ (1994)
‘Vauxhall And I’ could consist of nothing but ‘Speedway’ on an hour-long loop and I’d still think it was one of the greatest albums of all time. I don’t think I can do justice, here, to how obsessed I was with that song – a song that begins with the violent buzz of a revving chainsaw and ends with Morrissey feeding all of his carefully constructed barriers and defence mechanisms into the shredder. Musically, it’s a thunderdrome drama, all booming guitars and bullet-force drums; lyrically, it feels like Morrissey exposing and expunging himself in the hope of finding redemption as he admits “All of the rumours keeping me grounded/ I never said, I never said they were unfounded.” And then, the ending… the way in which, when he’s been caught-out at his most desperate and despicable, he’s still as strangely, subversively romantic as ever. “In my own strange way, I’ve always been true to you,” he insists, and my face tingles each time I hear it.
But ‘Vauxhall And I’ doesn’t just have ‘Speedway’. It has the devilish humour of ‘The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get’, the sleepily-textured charm of ‘The Lazy Sunbathers’ which contrasts with his disdain for the mindless holidaymakers sprawling on the sand while war rages around them, the way Morrissey’s voice turns into a soothing whisper for the gentle, twinkling black humour of ‘Lifeguard Sleeping, Girls Drowning’, the leering underbelly of ‘Spring Heeled Jim’ and brooding, slow-burn beauty of ‘Now My Heart Is Full’. Not just in his own strange way – by anyone’s standards, it’s a masterpiece.