May 16, 2004

Return of the king

By: Jerry Brito

“I’m assuming that you express your personal feelings through your lyrics,” says a Spin magazine interviewer to Morrissey in this month’s issue, the cover of which is graced by the legendary singer’s face and graying quiff.

“It’s always been absolutely and exclusively about me,” comes the answer.

And yet, this is not as egotistical as it might sound. Who Morrissey has been during his early solo work and his time with The Smiths is someone who misshapes, mistakes, and misfits have related to in the most profound way. His lyrics, therefore, have not just been about him, but also about the legions of skinny, shy, painfully thoughtful devotees who, when it seemed life couldn’t get much worse, found a kindred soul in Morrissey. In finding someone else so lonely, they were no longer alone.

To NME he recently said, “People always say to me, ‘You changed my life.’ And most commonly they say to me, ‘When I was a teenager, you really helped me through the death of my hamster’ or things like that (laughs) and I just feel a flush of pride. Because I think it’s quite something to help people through their darkest hours.”

I’ve heard more than a few persons say those words about Morrissey: “He changed my life.” I know I have said them more than once.

But, after all, Morrissey is Steven Patrick Morrissey, a human; and humans change and grow. So although his first new album in seven years, You Are The Quarry, (out on May 18th) is “absolutely and exclusively” about him, it is about a somewhat different Morrissey. A middle-aged Moz who now has other preoccupations besides coming of age, and who is–dare one think it–happier.

With that in mind, a Morrissey fan with unrealistic expectations of more of the usual might be disappointed with the new album. A more realistic fan would see it for what it is: a triumphant return after seven years of silence and, before that, two last albums that were, quite frankly, awful. Still, one has certain expectations of Morrissey, and, given those expectations, You Are The Quarry is a mixed bag.

The first of Moz’s new preoccupations seems to be politics, which is a shame because it is always wrenching to discover the political beliefs of artists one admires for their art. (It’s bad enough not being a vegetarian.) The first song on the album is the unfortunate “America Is Not The World,” which I’m afraid might turn off many from listening to the rest of the record.

It is a clichéd attack on America’s arrogance: a played-out theme. It might have been fine if Morrissey had taken this old saw and given it an innovative treatment (à la “Margaret On The Guillotine”), but instead we get such dire lyrics as, “America / it brought you the hamburger / well America / you know where you can shove your hamburger / and don’t you wonder why in Estonia / they ‘hey you, / you big fat pig.'” Estonia??

Such unsubtle political lyrics are unworthy of Moz’s pen, but they are repeated elsewhere on the album; even Oliver Cromwell is mentioned. Luckily this is the low point of the record and it only gets better.

The second song is the beautifully rock-poppy “Irish Blood, English Heart,” which is the first single now on the radio. In it Morrissey returns to his anti-monarchical roots and his celebration of a uniquely British Anglophilia (please don’t call it nationalism). This leitmotiv continues on what is easily the best song on the album, “Come Back to Camden,” where Moz explores the themes that made him great: aloneness and being English. Here, glorious Morrissey lyrics–and trademark falsettos–do make an appearance:

Drinking tea with the taste of the Thames
sullenly, on a chair on the pavement
here you’ll find my thoughts and I
and here is the very last plea from my heart, forevermore

You Are The Quarry also proves beyond a doubt that Morrissey’s greatest influence is Morrissey. The last song on the album is “You Knew I Couldn’t Last,” which is a reprise of “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself,” which in turn traces its lineage to The Smith’s “Paint A Vulgar Picture,” all lamenting the whoredom of the music trade. Morrissey’s penchant for romanticizing criminals (“The Last Of The Famous International Playboys,” “Jack The Ripper”) also recurs on this record with the absolutely wonderful “The First Of The Gang to Die.”

Instead of London and the Cray Brothers, the setting here is Moz’s new home, Los Angeles, and the compelling villains are the Hispanic gangs of that city. Not only does he pay homage to L.A. and American Latinos–whose youth are disproportionately enamored with Morrissey–but he also squeezes in some of his brilliant epigrammatic writing that was so missed in his last two records. This song, which is likely the next single, begins,

You have never been in love
until you’ve seen the stars
reflect in the reservoirs
and you have never been in love
until you’ve seen the dawn rise
behind the Home For The Blind

But among these gems, sadly, there are other low points, including the atrocious “How Could Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel.” Its chorus is, “I’ve had my face dragged in / fifteen miles of shit / and I do not like it.” What to say? I cannot think of any other Morrissey song that uses profanity in any instance, but certainly not in the chorus. The word “shit” isn’t necessarily a problem, but its use in this dumb chorus belies a complete lack of vocabulary that I know does not befit Moz. And this regrettable song continues with incomprehensible lyrics like, “the only one around here who is me is me … when they are they / and only I am I … even I / as sick as I am / I would never be you.”

Yet one takes the good with the bad. For a Morrissey die-hard, this album is the long-awaited return of the plaintively wailing, clever, quintessentially British, sad and lonely Morrissey–albeit more content and matured–that has been absent for 10 years. He is certainly past his apogee, but we are grateful for what we receive. For those just getting to know this forgotten icon, who the critics continue to insist is the most influential artist in recent memory, this album is good enough to whet their interest and hopefully lead them to classics such as The Queen Is Dead and Your Arsenal.

But whatever your perspective, you will find Morrissey’s new effort is above and beyond the mass of new music today–perhaps only short of the surprising and Smiths-influenced Interpol. However gray his quiff gets, I know I will always give Moz a chance; he saved my life, after all. And if You Are The Quarry is any indication, he still has plenty of genius to share, even if it is rough around the edges.

Jerry Brito is editor of Brainwash and a student at George Mason University School of Law. His Web site is