Johnny Marr discovered Morrissey in 1982, sometime after, one assumes, Steven Morrissey invented himself. Wags asserted that not since the Who had so formidable a talent been married to such an embarrassing, nay pitiful, lead singer. With the demise of the Smiths five years later, hastened by Marr’s inability to cope with the stardom his monstrous partner exulted in, the road ahead was plain: Marr, master of a powerfully recombinant style of rhythm guitar playing — indeed, perhaps the most focused such player in England since Keith Richards — would go on to greatness, and his morose Mancunian sidekick would take his place at the end of a very long list of English eccentrics of interest to no one but themselves. Yet here we are nearly a decade on; Marr is a sideman to other artists and Morrissey, well, Morrissey is a yawping demi-star and a serious wit, still despised and still rather laughable but with curiously persuasive pretensions to substance.
That substance rests on a somewhat warped appeal to a certain sensitive segment of disaffected middle-class youth. Too gentle for grunge, too questioning for pop pabulum, they hear in their love-wounded icon some echo of their own uncategorizable sadness. Morrissey is ostentatiously proud of this connection — he speaks about it earnestly in interviews and makes an extraordinary meet-and-greet effort, letting fans hug him with amazing forbearance. Such showboating, however, only serves to disguise the central metaphor of his work. Well, not disguise, really, for Morrissey’s rampant homoeroticism marks everything the man does, from the cheesecakey album covers and his carefully made-over sidemen to song title after song title (“I Am Hated for Loving,” “Certain People I Know,” “Will Never Marry,” “The End of the Family Line”). Morrissey claims to be a celibate and may even be telling the truth, but that’s a metaphor, too: for the connection that can never really be consummated between fan and star.
His solo work has, naturally enough, been on the English model: occasional albums confused with a blizzard of multi-track and multi-format singles irregularly collected into patchwork albums. After briefly attempting to continue the Smiths without Marr, he began collaborating with the group’s engineer-cum-producer, Stephen Street. The resulting Viva Hate is neither Morrissey embarrassed nor Morrissey bereft, but it is not quite a serious work, either. With Durutti Columnist Vini Reilly taking on the primary guitar responsibilities, this morose affair is filled with Morrissey’s trademark weepy asides, extravagances, posturing and unabashed self-pity. “Late Night, Maudlin Street” is just that, with little of the self-deprecating humor or compositional élan of Smiths tracks like “Half a Person.” But the album also gets serious — notably on the savage if unsubtle political attack that is “Margaret on the Guillotine” — and, just to throw everyone off, Morrissey and Street manage to conjure up two thoroughly sublime singles. The effervescent “Suedehead” is as melodically propulsive as anything Marr had provided the singer; “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” by contrast, is a shimmering, molten truth attack on the very concept of vacation. (Thatcher, the beach-Morrissey can get worked up about anything.) Those who had imagined Morrissey would be adrift without Marr were obviously mistaken.
Bona Drag is a surprisingly enjoyable collection of singles (“Suedehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday” among them) and new tracks; in much sharper relief than on Viva Hate is the solo Morrissey maelstrom of imagined grievances, waspish quips and genuine petulance, all coming out on album as a sort of emotional air guitar played at stadium intensity. In this fashion he swoons to be a crippled child (“November Spawned a Monster”), aches to be a gangster (“The Last of the Famous International Playboys”) and is given his walking papers even by the spirits above him (“Ouija Board, Ouija Board”). Too many of the other songs are less rewarding, but the album ends in an astonishing moment of recorded intelligence. “Disappointed” shivers and shakes with a tremoloed riff so cleverly reminiscent of Marr’s epochal “How Soon Is Now?” assault that it’s hard not to take the song as the singer’s comment on the breakup. “I’m truly disappointed,” smirks Morrissey, and closes the track off with a very funny couplet — “This is the last song I will ever sing/No I’ve changed my mind again,” complete with respective cheers and groans from an imaginary audience — that lampoons his own excesses better than any of his critics.
Yet the track also captures the tragedy of his emotional insularity: to truly appreciate the song’s multidimensionality you have to be more interested in Morrissey than is perhaps healthful. It would be easier to persuade the curious to make the effort if the artist worked at a consistently high level, but his albums have been erratic since then.
Produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, Kill Uncle — mostly co-written with new collaborator and guitarist Mark E. Nevin, late of Fairground Attraction — seems indistinct, though it does contain “Sing Your Life,” “Driving Your Girlfriend Home” and “There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends.” Your Arsenal, largely written with guitarist Alain Whyte and produced by the late Mick Ronson, is a bit more sparkly, with any number of sweet tunes, among them the irresistible “You’re the One for Me, Fatty,” whose splendid mix of love and cruelty comes as close as any Morrissey song to capturing the singer’s fey take on romance. Beethoven Was Deaf is an okay live album released in the UK, heavy on the hits and without so much as a nod or a wink to the Smiths.
Strange things happen on 1994’s more ambitious Vauxhall and I, written half with Whyte, half with Your Arsenal‘s other returning guitarist, Boz Boorer, who supplies the album’s strongest songs. The opening “Now My Heart Is Full,” with characters trotted out from Graham Greene’s portrait of aimless pre-war youth, Brighton Rock, is dramatic and funny. “Tell all of my friends,” begins the grandiose chorus, but the singer immediately drowns in a sea of digressions: “Don’t have too many/Just some raincoated lovers’ puny brothers.” “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” is an amusing and catchy essay on romantic obsession, containing the wry couplet, “I bear more grudges/Than lonely high court judges.” This album also has a killer closing track, the histrionic and thunderous “Speedway,” which takes his emotional excesses to psychotic, almost Sunset Boulevard levels.
World of Morrissey is a Bona Drag-type collection, including some live piffle from Beethoven Was Deaf, a long and bloodless run at “Moon River” from a UK single and the plangent “Boxers,” with its memorable portrait of a fighter “losing in front of your home crowd.” Southpaw Grammar, like Vauxhall and I, produced by Steve Lillywhite and played and written by Whyte and Boorer, continues Morrissey’s ring fixation — the title, he says, is a reference to “the school of hard knocks” — but ventures like the eleven-minute opening track (“The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils”) show the pop pugilist not up to his game. (Incidentally, the “Dagenham Dave” here is unrelated to the old Stranglers song of the same title.)