This year marks the 20th anniversary of Morrissey’s career as a solo artist, albeit a period that includes a seven-year silence when he found himself without a record label. Odd then that this distinctly lop-sided collection ignores practically the whole of his 1990s output, opting instead to focus on singles from his two post-millennium ‘comeback’ albums, You Are the Quarry and Ringleader of the Tormentors, which constitute two thirds of the songs featured. It is true that in terms of sales these later singles outperformed earlier work, including that of the Smiths, but one can’t help but wonder if this was largely a result of his return after such a prolonged absence from the music scene, rather than any discernible leap in songwriting quality. In other words, if you are looking for a balanced career overview you won’t find it here.
Which makes you wonder who a compilation like this is aimed at? Sure there are two new songs (one of which, the lumbering “That’s How People Grow Up”, is amongst the most pedestrian he has ever produced), but it’s easy enough to just purchase and download these tracks independently. The device of tacking on one or two pieces of new material surely no longer works as an incentive for fans to shell out money for a bunch of old songs, the majority of which they already own. The fact that the rest of the album is made up of three of his earliest post-Smith’s singles, a live track and one cut from Vauxhall and I means that the Morrissey novice (should such a person exist) would surely be left wondering what he was up to between 1990 and 2004. A grand total of five albums are completely glossed over including the rather excellent Your Arsenal.
On the plus side however, the album does showcase some of his better work in spite of the perverse selection policy. Choosing to open with “First of the Gang to Die”, the most immediate and energised single he’s released since his hiatus, means things get off with a bang. The cover of You Are the Quarry pictured Morrissey brandishing a Tommy gun and this single documents further his fascination with gangs, violence and premature death over driving rockabilly that feels far more epic than its three and a half minutes. The same goes for “Irish Blood, English Heart”, which is even shorter, and contains a clipped and impassioned defence against the charges of racism and flirtation with English nationalism that have dogged him since the early 1990s.
In truth though it is the early tracks he co-wrote with Queen is Dead producer Stephen Street in the immediate aftermath of the Smith’s demise that still represent the high water mark of his solo career to date. In terms of the loneliness, vulnerability and expressive melancholy they convey, both “Suedehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday” rank alongside his earlier group’s greatest achievements. The former in particular, with the driving guitars of Street and Vinni Reilly combined with Morrissey’s soaring vocals, still sounds stunning after 20 years. There is a spaciousness and lightness of touch that is absent from his most recent work in which the musical arrangements are richer, fuller, sounding almost over-produced at times.
As an introduction to his comeback albums this collection is serviceable enough. For the record I think the snarl and bite of You are the Quarry is infinitely superior to the more refined pomp and grandeur of the Visconti produced Ringleader of the Tormentors, which for me is the closest Morrissey has ever got to sounding dull. For those unfamiliar with earlier work there are numerous other compilations with more expansive track listings than what’s on offer here. Listening to them will no doubt reinforce the idea that whilst he has found a degree of consistency in his later work, it has been at the expense of the drama, danger and unpredictability that made him such a compelling, contradictory presence throughout the 1990s. Song selections are invariably contentious when it comes to compilations and, no doubt, there will be those who point out that this is a “Greatest Hits” not a “Best Of”. However, using the criteria of sales to present a picture of an artist whose popularity and commercial appeal (beyond his hardcore fan-base) fluctuated wildly in the previous decade has resulted in an unbalanced and ultimately unsatisfying collection.
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