Irish blood, English heart, Salford balls; this [a]Morrissey[/a] is made of. Abandoned by his public, dropped by his record label, proven unloveable at last, how fitting – how quintessentially Steven Patrick – it would have been for him to simply wither away; the reclusive faded star bemoaning his fate from the turrets of the only Hollywood Hills mansion with its own permanent cloud. Indie’s own Greta Garbo, an icon of some romantic Lost England shuffling old and alone among the sepia prints of his golden age: at the dawn of the 21st century – with Wildean irony – [a]Morrissey[/a] had himself become the perfect subject for a Smiths single sleeve. He was still big; it was music that got small.
But that damned light just wouldn’t go out. Somewhere in an LA psychiatric institution, one presumes, sits a mad, broken motivational therapist gibbering in Piccadilly palare, but one day Moz got his groove back, stopped waiting for an unsolicited record deal to flop onto his Diana Dors mat and set out to make the world listen. A self-financed world tour, two sold-out nights at the Albert Hall and several hundred thousand paroxysm-wracked Mexicans later, El Moz was the Biggest Unsigned Act On Earth and the focus of a full-scale critical rehabilitation and more than a couple of fans in the Libs and latterly Franz. The vision of a [a]Morrissey[/a] reborn during every show’s encore of ‘There Is A Light…’ (pink shirt flung to the slavering moshpit, abs rippling, back off the ropes and fighting fit at 44) seemed prophetic. Eat Keats, Peter Andre: the true Comeback King has arrived and this proud chest can’t be inflated by foot-pump.
At which point it would be no small delight for this reviewer to pronounce ‘You Are The Quarry’ – [a]Morrissey[/a]’s seventh solo album, released, with a wry wink, on Sanctuary’s revived DIY punk and reggae label Attack – as a career-topping masterpiece crammed with songs that make ‘Now My Heart Is Full’ sound like ‘Driving Your Girlfriend Home’ and skip away, quiff a-flap, down the Gladioli And Parrot to share a carrot quiche with those nice skinheads from the estate. Sadly, as with so much of his post-Smiths output, it’s not – quite. It’s undoubtedly the best thing he’s done since ‘Vauxhall & I’ but that’s hardly the most hysterical of plaudits – there are cheese and ricotta cannelloni dishes that are the best thing he’s done since ‘Vauxhall & I’.
While certainly something of a return to form, ‘You Are The Quarry’ scares no stylistic horses: musically we’re not a million miles from 1997’s much-maligned ‘Maladjusted’, but with a bit of the rock swagger of ‘Your Arsenal’, the languid croonery of ‘Vauxhall & I’, the desolate romance of ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ and, um, the odd electro-marshmallow twinkle of a [a]Morrissey[/a] ballad. And much better tunes.
No, the shocks here come with the large lyrical dollops of fire-eyed fury. This is no cap-in-hand shuffle back into the limelight: as if taking bloody revenge on a world that allowed him to fail, Moz deals out the poetic spite-fire like an Uzi-toting renegade holed up in a reference library. Even on the ballads. Every aspect of this loveless, dictatorial society is [a]Morrissey[/a]’s quarry, and first single ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ is typical: over a reggae-lite/BUZZSAW BLITZKRIEG backing reminiscent of ‘Speedway’, the vitriolic finale to ‘Vauxhall & I’, Morrissey takes a righteous revolutionary scythe to such venerable British institutions as the “smelly old NME”, the two-party political model, the monarchy and Oliver Cromwell – the latter lambasted for his subjugation and massacre of the Irish which eventually led to the modern-day Northern Ireland, presumably, rather than because Mozzer fancies himself as the most hard-hitting political satirist of 1649.
At its core, ‘Irish Blood…’ is a plea for a less tradition-shackled national identity from a deeply patriotic ideological exile and, alongside the airy, Ian Broudie-ish ‘America Is Not The World’, it kicks off the album with a double-barrelled blast to modern democracy’s bloated belly. Pretty much leaving himself nowhere in the Western hemisphere to live, the deceptively whimsical ‘America…’ is a barbed anti-love song that finds El Moz wagging a withering finger at US imperialism (“Steely blue eyes/With no love in them/Scan the world”), electoral conservatism (“Where the President is never black, female or gay”) and evil foodstuffs (“You know where you can shove your hamburger”). Not since ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’ has [a]Morrissey[/a] been so deserving of an FBI or MI5 file. Or a cease and desist order from Wimpy.
Before ‘You Are The Quarry’ turns into a Michael Moore-esque Some White Men Are Stupider Than Others diatribe, the sights swivel. Christ alone knows why everyone’s got it in for, well, Christ at the minute, but having already had seven shades of Messianic shite beaten out of him at the hands of Mel Gibson, the poor king of kings can’t even survive the new [a]Morrissey[/a] LP without getting it in the neck. ‘I Have Forgiven Jesus’ states the title of a sinister, low-key take on ‘Last Night I Dreamt…’, but he hasn’t: “Why did you stick me in self-deprecating bones and skin?” Moz berates the lamb of God, “Do you hate me?” Well, probably, Mozzer. Doesn’t everyone?
What about them pigs, eh, haven’t they got it in for you as well? ‘The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores’ is the centre-piece and highlight of the album: its masterful rafter-lifting torch-bombast would sit proudly on ‘Vauxhall & I’ or alongside the saving grace of ‘Maladjusted’, ‘Trouble Loves Me’, but its sentiment is the stuff of the police harassment hearing. A couple of hours’ detention at US immigration and suddenly Moz is coming over all [a]Morrissey[/a], crooning (albeit wonderfully) about “Policewomen, policemen… uniformed whores/Educated criminals work within the law”. Colostomy bag still boiling, the Victor Meldrew of mope-pop even pauses for a passing swing at “Lock-jawed pop stars/Thicker than pig shit/Nothing to convey/They’re so scared to show intelligence/It might smear their lovely career”. I think that’s a no to the duet, Gareth.
The bitterest bile, however, is saved for the sycophants. ‘How Could Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel’ is [a]Morrissey[/a]’s most savage and straight-talking song to date, aimed at those who profess to – oh mother! – feel his pain. “I’ve had my face dragged in 15 miles of shit/And I do not like it”, spits a furious Morrissey, as Boz Boorer attempts to make his guitar sound like a flame-thrower burning the stalkers out of the Chez Moz bushes. To clarify, he then adds: “He said he wants to befriend me/Which means he can’t possibly know me”. It’s manic, metallic misanthropy, Morrissey gone postal. Awesome.
If the first half of ‘You Are The Quarry’ is [a]Morrissey[/a]’s grace-laden Kill Bill, after the cathartic slaughter frenzy of ‘How Could Anybody…’ some true romance seeps in. There’d been hints of it before – pier-end weepie ‘Come Back To Camden’ is a sister-piece to ‘I Know It’s Going To Happen Someday’, [a]Morrissey[/a] warbling in ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ falsetto like that ageing Hollywood starlet he so nearly became – but now it comes in torrents. ‘First Of The Gang To Die’ – a ‘National Front Disco’-style stomper – is the album’s only frivolous character song, thankfully concerning neither window cleaners nor anyone from Dagenham, but a tragic young member of the Pretty Petty Thieves gang called Hector (“the first lost lad”) who gets into guns and robbing and ends up gargling lead (“such a silly boy!”). ‘I Like You’ is equally exuberant fun, while ‘Let Me Kiss You’ unearths the first evidence that [a]Morrissey[/a] has working genitals and the will to use them. “Close your eyes/And think of someone you physically admire/And let me kiss you-hooo!” he swoons over the closest he’s ever come to a ‘bedroom flava’. Whoa there, Mozzer! Margaret Thatcher! Dead kittens! Reggae DJs! Meg White’s teeth! You don’t do that stuff, remember!
There are disappointments. ‘I’m Not Sorry’ (“for the things I’ve done”) suggests he’s been mourning too long over the duller cappuccino-acoustic end of Kirsty MacColl’s mighty legacy (and who the hell let that jazz flautist loose in here? Quick! The traps!) and ‘All The Lazy Dykes’, while rousing in places, could have dropped off side two of ‘Kill Uncle’ (the [a]Morrissey[/a] equivalent of Bowie’s entire ’80s output). But most frustrating is the way this defiant chest-puff of an album ends with a desultory shrug. Full of blam and bluster, ‘You Know I Couldn’t Last’ is the flipped negative of ‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’, [a]Morrissey[/a] now cast as the washed-up rocker lamenting the crushing of his butterfly-sensitive soul upon the music industry wheel. Lawyers, accountants, critics, merchandising and the infernal ring of the cash register that “weighs so heavy on my back” (and not, curiously, two crap albums in the mid-’90s) conspire to bring about his downfall, and give ‘You Are The Quarry’ a sour sag in the tail.
Yet there’s no deflating the true triumph of this album. It’s a solid, occasionally spectacular comeback record, yes, but still a triumph of faith over industry cynicism, of devotion over spreadsheet. It’s a giant leap towards a day when standing by [a]Morrissey[/a] is not to be shameful, apologist or embarrassed of your haircut. “Hold on to your friends”, [a]Morrissey[/a] once wailed in his honeycomb hiccup, unaware that the same was true of your heroes – or, more bluntly, as those great poets and philosophers the Counting Crows most recently sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”. Hey, hey, El Moz is back: now our hearts are re-filled.