You’d be hard pressed to find a more revered figure in all of post-punk (talking the timeline here, not the genre) indie-dom than Steven Patrick Morrissey. Ian Curtis would give him a run, but then Curtis cut tragically short his own brilliant creative streak. Bowie comes to mind, of course, but you’d be equally hard pressed to find many people willing to rally around his more recent material, and anyway his best years came before the punk explosion. Brian Eno could do it, but he seems so remote and flawlessly crystalline that he hasn’t inspired the cult of personality that Morrissey has both enjoyed and bemoaned throughout his career. Wherever you’re placing your bets, it’s difficult not to stand back in amazement at Morrissey’s discography and his legions of obsessively devoted fans.
This reissue of Bona Drag, a highpoint of his early solo career, comes as something of a victory lap, a thumb in the eye to those who doubted him around the time of the album’s original recording. Born out of the dissolution of his relationship with longtime collaborator and Smiths producer Stephen Street, as well as Moz’s struggles to produce enough solid material for the follow-up to 1988’s Viva Hate, Bona Drag saw him shaking off all of these pressures and further cementing his status as a one of the premier talents of his—and, all right, any—generation.
His devotees know the story well: Bona Drag was originally supposed to be the proper second album under Morrissey’s own name, but the singer ended up releasing a string of non-album singles instead, keeping his name on the charts while he waded through the personal and professional turmoil of the post-Viva Hate years. Rather than using the title for an album of all new material, Morrissey released Bona Drag in 1990 as a collection of those singles and assorted b-sides. It’s become a fan favorite and a critical darling in the years since.
The highpoints of the album are all here in punchy, remastered glory. “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, perhaps Morrissey’s finest song (period), blends Moz’s classically hyperbolic lyrics—“come Armageddon, come!”—with Vini Reilly’s beautifully mournful guitars to transport its listeners to the desolate seaside towns of England while also giving them one of the best pop songs the UK has ever produced. Stephen Street, still showing his mark, laces the composition with subtle washes of synths and swells of strings, judiciously allowing these flourishes to supplement the overall arrangements, leaving Morrissey’s voice and lyrics at center stage. The song is famously inspired by Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel, On the Beach, and Morrissey’s lyrics describe such a nuclear winter in restrained detail (“a strange dust lands on your hands…”). However, the song gets its real emotional power in his ability to let his lyrics function as both a dystopian character sketch and an entirely realistic depiction of the gentle melancholia experienced by two lovers sharing “some greased tea” in a nearly empty out-of-season resort town. It’s the type of song to wear out your record needle, or barring that, to dominate play counts in your digital music library. It’s a gift.
“Suedehead”, Morrissey’s first solo single, sounds like a natural transition from his place in the Smiths. The guitars jangle, the bass bounces in lockstep with the kick drum, the snare sits right at the front of the mix. Here, Morrissey’s lyrics take the open diary approach that injected allegiance into the hearts of millions of teenagers worldwide. He croons, “Why do you come here / when you know it makes things hard for me? / …I’m so very sickened, / oh, I am so sickened now.” These lyrics, plain enough to be completely flat in another artist’s hands, gain their resonance from Morrissey’s fantastic vocal performance. He imbues each note with longing, confidently exploring the higher realms of his register. And, in a habit that his detractors love to ignore, he refuses to let “Suedehead” become merely a sad sack anthem. In the song’s final moments, he adds another refrain: “Oh, it was a good lay, good lay,” he repeats until the track fades out. Morrissey could blend humor with personal tragedy in such a way as to give primacy to neither, instead allowing one to play off the other in a way that ingeniously mirrors the ambivalence of our own experiences.
And the hits continue. “Piccadilly Palare” tells the tale of a young male prostitute fresh to the streets of London, another bold choice for a pop songwriter always unafraid of controversy. “Interesting Drug” skitters along on an irresistible interlocking guitar and bass hook. “Will Never Marry” is an all-too-brief, understated ballad that begs to be repeated once it ends. “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” features several Smiths and discusses the mythologizing of fallible celebrity figures in a tongue-in-cheek exploration of Morrissey’s own fame. “Such things I do / Just to make myself / More attractive to you / Have I failed?” he asks. No, clearly, no again and again.
The original Bona Drag is an end-to-end classic. The bonus material included here in the reissue accomplishes a rare feat in form. These six outtakes properly supplement the other material, and none of the songs seem half-baked or unnecessary. “Happy Lovers” sees Morrissey in clenched-jawed misery, cast away by a former friend and a lover as an unneeded third wheel. “Lifeguard on Duty” glides by on waves of reverb and bright hooks. “Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness” is titled “Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness”—need anymore be said? Morrissey, perhaps against all odds, is still releasing class A material into his 50s. While we wait for a new album, revisiting Bona Drag proves just as fruitful as ever. It’s a masterwork by a master performer, and it’s enough to inspire another generation of heart-on-sleeve love letters from new and old fans alike to their hero.