Over the past year, you could practically sniff a Smiths revival on the breeze. Dance music exhausted itself and as happens, the latest generation of talents went reactionary, sifting through the clutter of what directly preceded the dying fad in search of inspiration—which goes some way to explaining the present influence of The Smiths.
Most great artists possess amongst their range of talents a finely tuned cultural antenna, and with impeccable timing Morrissey has sensed his moment. At 45 years of age, seven years on from his last album release of new material, the man’s message has subtly matured and altered. While some in the press have derided these changes, noting a softening around the belly, describing a middle-aged crooner growing comfortable in an easy chair, they’re missing the point. This is the artist Morrissey was always destined to become. The evidence always pointed this way, and if you don’t like it, well most likely this is as good as it’s going to get anyway.
Life is often a question of timing. The disaffected, the maladjusted, they’re always claiming “the timing was just wrong”. This is how the ‘90s were for Morrissey, a decade during which music was informed primarily by DJs whose music, contrary to earlier suggestion, said everything to people about their lives. While some might claim that the ‘80s ended prematurely when The Smiths disbanded, in truth they quit at precisely the right moment. The message was tired—“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”—and it’s hard to imagine The Smiths meaning anything to an entire generation saturated in Ecstasy.
By the time Strangeways Here We Come was released in 1987, Morrissey was almost 30 years old. Despite his own claims to the contrary, Strangeways was not The Smiths finest record. Thirty may scarcely yet be an undignified age for a pop star, but a man that age still singing tales of isolation, of being lost and confused, quickly loses a measure of sympathy. By your 30s it’s time to get a grip—which presumably, most of Morrissey’s constituents were busily engaged in while he continued to release an uneven catalogue of songs ripe with amusing but overly familiar titles like “Seasick, But Still Docked”. Endlessly they came, so that by his mid-30s, the joke simply wasn’t funny any more. It was increasingly sad and redundant, and a significant break seemed in order. We were all ready for it—least of all, Morrissey himself.
And so Morrissey moved to America.
First and foremost, You Are the Quarry is Morrissey’s pond crossing album, declarative of his recent last years living in America. Forget the obviousness of “America Is Not the World” (which incidentally claims the clumsiest work on the album—“hey you, you big fat pig/ you fat big”—awkwardness barely salvaged by a lovely outro), his new home is more evident in “Let Me Kiss You”: “I’ve zigzagged across America / And I cannot find a safety haven”, and even more so in “I Have Forgiven Jesus”. The latter states “I was a good kid/ I wouldn’t do you no harm” and “Forgive me any pain/ I may have brung to you.” If the first seems an alarming slip from an arch English grammarian, the second reveals Morrissey writing in character. While the uneducated English may be equally adept with sloppy grammar, clearly Morrissey is not invoking English character here. These are distinct Americanisms, picked up in his new and foreign culture.
Much has been made of the affinity between Morrissey and his Hispanic congregation, particularly those from the barrios of East LA. His tribute to them here, “The First of the Gang to Die”, is the most perfect pop song on the new album, sprung from a catchy melody and ingenious wordplay, reminiscent of the feather touched genius of “Rusholme Ruffians” and mid-era Smiths. Lyrically it contains many of Morrissey’s great themes—the romance of troubled youth, the eternal nature of longing, and the ultimate peril of failure. There’s not a line wasted, and the song is packed with witty, multi-layered imagery that can only have sprung from the master’s pen: “And you have never been in love / Until you’ve seen the sun rise / Behind the Home for the Blind.” It’s a flawless pop gem, and if it fails to be recognized as such by Smiths purist it’s only because they’re busy burying their heads between the cobblestones.
As a singer, Morrissey has never sounded better than this. His voice has taken on a richness, a warmth, and the sound of the entire album is both full and lush, occasionally elegiac. We even get reminders on several tracks of one of pop’s more flavorful falsettos. For much of his solo career, Morrissey’s records resonated with compromised ambition, an uncomfortable mix of his own words grafted over other people’s music. One thing that made The Smiths so special was Johnny Marr’s inimitable gift for writing music that conjured the atmosphere and emotions Morrissey expressed with pen and voice. Seldom has it happened since the two went their separate ways though. Even on Viva Hate, the debut and likely best solo album, the music sometimes chaffed awkwardly, the instrumentation sounding like it didn’t belong (check out the first track, “Alsatian Cousin”). Perhaps the greatest surprise to be found on You Are the Quarry is that not only is the music invariably catchy and multi-layered, but it goes some way toward matching the intent of the lyrics.
And the lyrics themselves remain peerless. More than anything, Morrissey brings a unique and distinct vocabulary to pop music, and this above all will be his legacy. How far through pop history might you have to troll in order to find another writer make use of the word “baneful”, or describe someone as “a crashing bore”? Who else would etch “lazy dykes” pedaling in the California sun with “legs astride their bikes/ and indigo burns on their arms”? Or conceive of a place “Where taxi-drivers never stop talking/ Under slate-grey Victorian sky”? It’s what the professors of literature call “inventing a universe”, and it’s Morrissey’s greatest achievement.
Still, you sense the Southern California sun already setting on this world. Where once he sang of the mysteries of youth and burgeoning sexuality—the amused recognition that “some girls are bigger than others”—now there’s a wistful acknowledgement that “The woman of my dreams/ She never came along/ The woman of my dreams/ Well there never was one.” The fatalism comes by way of a backward glance now: “When will this heart stop beating?/ It’s all a game/ Existence is only a game”—not, as it once did, from looking towards a bleak future.
The album closes with a pre-emptive salvo at fans, critics, former band mates (take your pick), at all those who feel betrayed by this working class, self-described loser living off the fat of the land high amidst the in-glories of Hollywood. “You Know I Couldn’t Last” portrays the impossibility (at least to the singer) of maintaining pure faith and credibility as a rich and successful star: “There’s a cash register ringing and/ It weighs so heavily on my back.” While acknowledging the casualties that hurt him the most—“The teenagers / Who love you / They will wake up / Yawn and kill you”—he is dismissive of those “Northern leeches” who matter least of all: “Your royalties bring you luxuries/ But oh—the squalor of the mind.”
Morrissey is too ardent a student of pop history to be unaware of the crimes currently read against him. There’s also a certain naivety to critics who imagine that any of us would spurn the material riches garnered from the fruits of our labor. Stephen Patrick Morrissey has long been an icon of the disenfranchised, and perhaps new suits and fancy cars paint an unpalatably vulgar picture to some. However, whether it changes his essential nature or represents the hunter as captured by the game is questionable.
If the point of introspection is supposed to be self-knowledge, then you suspect Morrissey of all people is aware of all this. Idealism is not only a privilege of youth, but also a relativism, and one of the few privileges of getting older is the right to alter your viewpoint. Being in the game simply makes you the quarry, and he is likely to shrug off these arrows and barbs of (mis-) fortune, retreat to the comfort and shade of his Southern California home and continue to receive the unabashed pilgrims calling outside his door, “You’re the one for me, fatty.”