Morrissey has always been weird. Well, that much is obvious, isn’t it? But the point is that his and The Smiths’ discography has been studded with oddities over the years, with left-field subject matter and off-kilter arrangements aplenty. A few of The Smiths’ odder moments: ‘Vicar In A Tutu’, ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’, ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’, ‘Is It Really So Strange?’ (that last one really answers its own question). A few of Moz’s odder solo moments: ‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’, ‘You’re The One For Me, Fatty’, ‘The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get’.
The difference: The Smiths’ oddball indulgences were album tracks and B-sides to be discovered by crate-digging fans, while Moz solo has always flown his freak flag loud and proud. Who the else would have prefaced ‘The Last Of The Famous International Playboys’, a Top 10 single, with a love letter (written in character) to Reggie Kray? Only Steven Patrick Morrissey.
His new, previously unreleased track, ‘I Thought You Were Dead’, arrives as the B-side to the single ‘Lover-To-Be’, which was pressed to red vinyl as a 1000-copy limited release for Record Store Day. It’s an original composition, separate from the upcoming covers collection ‘California Son’, and was released shortly because he cancelled two Canadian dates due to ill-health. ‘Lover-To-Be’, having originally appeared on the deluxe version of 2017 album ‘Low In High School’, is real oddball Moz-pop, opening as a deliciously camp organ-led lounge waltz (“Have you seen me? I am your lover-to-be”) that in its final throes morphs into ‘Your Arsenal’-era rockabilly glam (no wonder: long-time Moz guitarist Boz Boorer was on co-writing duties). The thing is: if the A-side was that weird, how weird must the B-side be?
The answer is that “I Thought You Were Dead’ is a murky, Romani-influenced number replete with a roaring violin solo that sounds like you’re at the bottom of a swimming pool in Moscow in 1934 with a White Russian cocktail spooling into the chlorinated water. Co-written with Jesse Tobias, with whom Morrissey has worked since 2005, it’s the sound of a musician who appears unlikely to start compromising any time soon. There’s a real elegiac quality to the woozy refrain, “it’s all been so nice”, repeated over and over.
Rolling piano, barrelling chorus – “Sorry gone / Peace won / Five words spurred me on / I though you was dead” – an intoned, barely decipherable spoken-word coda: it’s the most imaginative and exploratory that Morrissey’s sounded in some time, and a reminder that he’s rarely played by the rules of contemporary pop. No-one else would’ve released this song, and fewer still could have made it work. If he has appeared determined to alienate long-time fans in recent years, here’s proof that the music can still sound excitingly eccentric.