“I’m not sorry,” Morrissey sang on his gangbusters 2004 comeback album ‘You Are The Quarry’, “for all the things I’ve said / There’s a wild man in my head”. His first record in seven years, it was an album that shimmered with pomp and swagger, stuffed with bejewelled riffs and lyrics by turns self-excoriating and beautiful (from ‘Come Back To Camden’: “Your leg came to rest against mine / Then you lounged with knees up and apart / And me and my heart, we knew / We just knew”).
It was a good time to be Morrissey. He went on The Jonathan Ross Show, where he was charming and funny (Ross asked if they could be friends and he politely deadpanned, “I don’t think so,” to much laughter), looked like an icon and, returned from LA, received a hero’s welcome. Such a thing is now, of course, inconceivable. 2004 was the year The Libertines released their second album and Franz Ferdinand’s debut went top 10. British music was enthralled by lyrical, poetic guitar bands that couldn’t have existed without The Smiths.
The preceding seven years had been something of a wilderness for Morrissey, who’d disappeared after a pair of creatively exhausted-sounding albums (‘Southpaw Grammar’ and, even worse, ‘Maladjusted’) in the ‘90s. Emboldened by his successful 2004, he embarked on a career renaissance and sounded rejuvenated on a further three records (from 2006’s ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ to 2014’s ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’). In this time, he came second on the BBC’s Culture Show poll to find Britain’s greatest living icon – behind Sir David Attenborough, ahead of Sir Paul McCartney – and appeared on Victoria Wood’s documentary A Nice Cup Of Tea, extolling the virtues of his favourite drink.
The point is that Morrissey was being readied for national treasure status. Grumpy old Morrissey. A sort-of misanthropic Alan Bennett. By 2019 he could have been getting wheeled out for book readings at The Barbican Centre and performing at the Glastonbury ‘Legends’ slot.
A cosy could-have-been. Instead, of course, the eternal outsider, the 59-year-old contrary adolescent, he’s embarked on a mission to alienate the audience that adored him. In 2010, in the context of an attack on China’s animal welfare record, he called Chinese people a “sub-species”. His unpalatable announcements began long before this, but they were sporadic and, predating social media, easier to miss (or even quietly ignore). In recent years, though, Morrissey has given a series of inflammatory interviews (one published on his own website) and expressed support of For Britain, a political party led by former Ukip candidate Anne-Marie Waters, a politician who is unequivocally anti-Islamic.
Could this be the same Morrissey who wrote ‘The National Front Disco’, a clear-eyed depiction of a disaffected young man, who, feeling thwarted by his lack of success and opportunity, turns to nationalism to give his life an easy – and misguided – sense of meaning?
Such empathy and insight is, now, it seems, beyond him. There were one-and-a-half good songs on his last album, 2017’s ‘Low In High School’ (the campy and whimsical ‘Spent The Day In Bed’ and the barbed ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On The Stage’). The unofficial line is that ‘California Son’ is a covers album because Morrissey wants his 12th studio record to speak for itself. Well, what it’s saying is that it’s not very good.
Opening track ‘Morning Starship’ indicates his desire to convey messages with his song choices – its original singer, Jobriath, the first openly gay rock musician signed to a major label, was often likened to David Bowie, Morrissey’s old nemesis. This new version flexes fuller-bodied production than Jobriath’s 1973 record, though Moz’s croon sounds thinner than you might expect, except when he bellows, “Boom boom boom! Morning Starship!”, like Basil Brush. The song is laden with electronic burbles, layered backing vocals, syrupy arrangements.
About half of the album is similarly overcooked. A cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘It’s Over’, featuring American singer-songwriter LP, is almost unlistenable, as stodgy as Morrissey’s bread and potatoes diet. Gary Puckett’s 1968 hit ‘Lady Willpower’ (a song about a man who’ll dump his girlfriend if she won’t sleep with him) sounds like ‘Show Me The Way To Amarillo’. Bob Dylan’s sparse civil rights ballad ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ has been reimagined as a booming processional, its potent message pumped up until it’s fit to bursting.
And yet there are moments of brilliance here, too. ‘Wedding Bell Blues’, a hit for the soul group 5th Dimension in 1969, is fabulous – breezy and high camp, whistling through its sprightly piano arrangement, a touch of bizarre in the sound of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong crooning away in the background. On ‘Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets’, originally sung by Dionne Warwick, he winks, “Life’s not really all sunshine and laughter,” a welcome reminder of his arch, camp sense of humour.
Some tracks are merely forgettable – ‘Days Of Decision’, ‘Lenny’s Tune’ and ‘When You Close Your Eyes’ – while others charge headfirst into oddball territory. ‘Suffer The Little Children’, written by protest singer Buffy Sainte-Marie (and perhaps included as a nod to the similarly titled Smiths song) is a stomping anti-school polemic (a subject Moz explored on ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ and across the hilarious first hundred pages of his 2013 autobiography) that bounces along with handclaps, pounding piano and, fantastically, a moment where he imitates Elvis by way of Alex Turner, purring, “Did you think he’d be a boogeyman?”
That’s another one of his messages. Some former fans do, now, feel that Morrissey’s become a boogeyman. He address this more explicitly on the final track ‘Some Say I Got Devil’. The original, performed by the folk singer Melanie Safka, is a fractured acoustic weepie, though Morrissey’s version is something of a panto show-stopper (well, he did appear on Broadway recently). It’s at once minimalist and maximalist, with dramatic staccato violins striking sharply as Moz laments, “Some say I got devil / Some say I got angel”, before the track becomes even quieter and, over creeping piano, he sighs, “Somehow the music / Hides it and conceals it”, conceding that he only ever fitted in on stage.
Morrissey has done almost everything in his power to undo his own legacy, but this is impossible because you can’t diminish the beauty of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ or the anti-racist righteousness of ‘The National Front Disco’. Yet that doesn’t mean an occasionally accomplished covers album can rescue his reputation, or that that’s even desirable at this point.
He was always best with his back to the wall (writing with Johnny Marr, poor and anonymous, in 1980s Manchester; determined to succeed when The Smiths fell apart; emerging from his washed-up period in 2004). Yet he may now have created a gulf too enormous to row back from, which is inextricable from the music. ‘California Son’ is the sound of someone in retreat, withdrawing from the world around them, pulling up the draw-bridge, sometimes attempting to engage with the now but only half-heartedly so. In fact, it brings to mind another lyric from ‘You Are The Quarry’: “The future is passing you by.”