If there’s one man capable of turning the critical pen into mush, it’s Morrissey.
Through his work with The Smiths, the Manchester icon turned being lonely into something glamorous, a status almost worth attaining. Critical analysis of the singer’s work is suddenly blunted by an urge to tell the world you lost your virginity to ‘Half A Person’ and that she never loved the real you. I didn’t, by the way (and she didn’t, while we’re here).
But time was not on the mercurial quartet’s side. The five-year career of The Smiths pales in comparison to Morrissey’s 21-year occupation as one of the most fascinating and controversial men in British music. The old bugbears of sexuality and tortured adolescence remain, but Morrissey has explored a vast variety of musical ground since The Smiths bit the dust in 1987.
Ahead of the release of his new album ‘Years Of Refusal’, released on February 16, Clash takes a Fan’s Eye View on some of Mozza’s finest solo releases…
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‘Viva Hate’ (1988)
What to do after splitting arguably the greatest group of a generation? Upon removing The Smiths from the indie landscape things suddenly looked a whole lot emptier – or clearer depending on your point of view. Morrissey came home to his native Manchester and recruited an all-star band that included reclusive Factory genius Vini Reilly. Swapping one Northern guitar hero for another, the lyricist set about funnelling his aggression over the split into a series of songs that stand as some of the most direct he had written up to that point. Check out ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ and its refrain of “come, come nuclear bomb”. Lead single ‘Suedehead’ stormed into the top ten, outstripping all previous efforts by The Smiths. Riding atop a vicious Reilly riff, Morrissey intoned a tale of forgotten hooligans stealing his diary. Full of repressed longing and desire, of course, but who longed for who was another question entirely. This burst of passion would also dent his pen, resulting in the fairly boring ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’ and the lyrically questionable ‘Bengali In Platforms’ – the accusation of racism can only truly be answered by Morrissey of course, but the faux easy listening backing make it a moment to forget. Not that ‘Viva Hate’ is easily forgotten, however. Morrissey returns to his old family home with ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’ bidding adieu to some bitter memories, while ‘Angel, Angel Down We Go Together’ is a stunning evocation of love with someone bent on self-destruction – which, admittedly, is rather like being a Morrissey fan at times.
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‘Bona Drag’ (1990)
Morrissey always loved the seven-inch single. The weapon of choice for punk rockers and ‘60s starlets alike, Morrissey’s career is littered with non-album releases that frequently result in his best work. Driven by creative desire after the success of ‘Viva Hate’, the singer swiftly returned to the studio crafting a number of songs including the single that could well become his epitaph – ‘The Last Of The Famous International Playboys’. Gathered together on ‘Bona Drag’ these singles form something unlike the rest of Morrissey’s solo career. Often his albums are statements, about events in his personal life or a musical direction. However, ‘Bona Drag’ sits merely as music, created for the hell of it with people whose company he enjoyed. Sparking one of his funniest moments – ‘Hairdresser On Fire’ – it finds Morrissey in relaxed mood. The album also represents one of the last times the singer would speak to his former Smiths outside of the courtroom. Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke appear, alongside sometime Smith Craig Gannon, and the air of camaraderie is present on the track ‘Lucky Lisp’. Joyce and Rourke would later inspire more Morrissey material, though probably not in the way they had hoped.
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‘Vauxhall & I (1994)’
Morrissey had always seemed hostile to the States. The Smiths rarely toured there, starving his Stateside fans of his physical presence in their lives. His decision to mount a full-scale solo tour was met with deranged excitement and a flurry of ticket sales, breaking records at the Madison Square Gardens amongst others. With fans falling at his feet, Morrissey recruited glam hero Mick Ronson to record ‘Your Arsenal’. The result was inspiring yet confused, as the one-time Bowie axeman tried to get to grips with Morrissey’s utterly distinctive working methods. Having played to packed crowds and released an album with his boyhood hero, it seemed as if the only way was up for our Mancunian hero. But then tragedy struck robbing Morrissey of some dear friends, as well as producer Mick Ronson.
Engulfed in grief, the singer tore away to the studio, subsequently writing some of the most impassioned music in a frequently impassioned career. ‘Vauxhall & I’ stands as one of the greatest achievements in Morrissey’s solo canon thus far, a wonderful indictment of those who leave life unfulfilled. ‘I Am Hated For Loving’ sees Morrissey address his own career, while ‘Hold On To Your Friends’ will leave a lump in the stiffest of throats. Boz Boorer remains the hidden hero throughout – crafting exceptionally subtle music around Morrissey’s increasingly personal lyrics, supplying light against encroaching darkness. The singer would later state that he believed the album would be the last he would ever make – it is certainly among his best.
In the years after ‘Vauxhall & I’ Morrissey seems to go adrift. Follow-up ‘Southpaw Grammar’ is a frequently misunderstood affair, joining prog influences to the artist’s distinctive sweeping sound. Not that anyone cared – it came out in 1995 when the musical world seemed to be obsessed with Kappa, Kickers and whatever Liam Gallagher was picking out of his navel. Follow up ‘Maladjusted’ fared badly on the critical front, and even now seems tired. Its one moment of controversy was on the final track – a bizarre ditty called ‘Sorrow Will Come In The End’. An explicit attack on Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke for suing him in 1996, it would mark seven years of silence from the Bard.
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‘You Are The Quarry’ (2004)
Well glory be. Just when he was beginning to fill ‘Where are they now?’ columns, Morrissey mounts the greatest comeback of a generation. Ensconced with fading Hollywood royalty in Los Angeles, communicating only by fax, the Manchester singer seemed to be further adrift than ever – yet somehow he prevailed. With acts such as Franz Ferdinand making literate pop fashionable, and others including The Killers rooting through his garbage, Morrissey suddenly became a fashionable name to drop. Hell, even NME seemed to have forgiven him, after previously falling out with the singer over allegations of racism. Morrissey, that is, not the NME. They always cover black music.
‘You Are The Quarry’ is by turns lush and stripped down, the lyrics both obtuse and exact. ‘The First Of The Gang To Die’ opens with the unforgettable lines ‘You have never been in love / until you’ve seen the stars reflect in the reservoir.’ The aging idol reflects on his youth, and finds the wisdom of age much preferable. Re-energised, the album features rants against religion – ‘I Have Forgiven Jesus’ – as well as lighter pieces such as ‘All The Lazy Dykes’. The expanded edition of the album demonstrates just how on form Morrissey was, gathering together B-sides such as ‘Never Played Symphonies’ and the celebrated ‘Munich Air Disaster 1958’. Witty and erudite when interviewed, the album gained a flurry of positive press sending it racing up the charts at home and abroad. Morrissey, it seemed, was back.
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‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ (2006)
Working quickly, Morrissey filled a busy touring schedule before heading back into the studio. Guitarist Jesse Tobias was recruited for a thinner, rockier sound while Bowie cohort Tony Visconti took care of production duties. ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ was more commercially successful than its predecessor, but in many ways it’s actually inferior to ‘You Are The Quarry’. Often confused, it includes moments of rage such as ‘The Father Who Must Be Killed’, which seem ill thought through. In fact, Morrissey’s childhood memories seem to be troubling him throughout the album with ‘The Youngest Was The Most Loved’ just one of a string of songs relating to family strife. But the album does contain some true nuggets from the master of melancholy, such as the vocal performance on ‘You Have Killed Me’ and the tender lyricism of ‘To Me You Are A Work of Art’.
However, trouble was brewing. A reckless way with words led to a controversial interview too far. Questioned on his attitude to immigration, Morrissey’s response put the singer in the dock once more on charges of racism. Court cases were held and Morrissey emerged triumphant, but at considerable cost to his reputation. History is on his side, however – Morrissey produces his best work when battling adversity. From the legacy of The Smiths, to the death of close friends and ultimate obscurity, Morrissey seems to require something to kick against. ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ contained the track ‘I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now’. For some, he will always remain the velvet voice who called out to them during a lonely adolescence, during a heart-rending break up or simply when they felt low. For others, he drifted into irrelevance a long time ago. How the singer responds to this split is anyone’s guess, but Morrissey has never resisted the temptation to rage against the dying of the light.
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‘Years Of Refusal’ is released on February 16 and is reviewed HERE.