We want to love Morrissey with no strings attached, to thank him forever for letting us know two decades ago that we weren't truly alone in this world. For comforting us with the notion that belligerent ghouls run schools the world over, for agreeing with us that too much music says nothing to us about our lives, for giving us clever quips to deliver regarding our preference for black clothing these are but a few of his ideas that we took to heart in our (de)formative, Smiths-listening years.
As thanks, we continue to buy his every solo release, even if his new music gives us less and less to cling to with each passing record, especially as the ill-conceived compilations come to outnumber the full-fledged albums. We try to rationalize his motivations and accept his explanations, but at some point it all threatens to crystallize, and then shatter.
Such has been my thinking on Morrissey for much of a decade, from 1995's somewhat
huh?-riffic Southpaw Grammar album
onward. Supporters of that rather muscular album will tell you that it was Morrissey's
attempt to thank his band by letting it take the spotlight, while people like
me will nag about the need to couple the couplets with some engaging music, both
of which were in short supply on Southpaw. That album was followed by
a trio of 1997 releases: the thoroughly mediocre Maladjusted, the patchy Suedehead:
The Best of Morrissey and a puzzling tenth-anniversary reissue of his solo
debut, Viva Hate, that tacked on eight random B-sides. The next year brought
a perplexing odds-and-sods release, My Early Burglary Years, which closed
out Morrissey's 20th century recordings.
And then came the silence, more than half a decade during which Morrissey embarked upon the occasional self-standing tour that featured a few new songs and a newfound willingness to play Smiths songs again but saw no (legal) recordings released to the world. Media reports revealed that he had moved to Hollywood, and purchased a house previously owned by such luminaries as Clark Gable and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Interviews found the singer complaining of the difficulties he faced in finding a record label, apparently unwilling to return to the indie label scene that birthed The Smiths and unwanted by the rapidly consolidating majors. Toward the end of this period the Morrissey seal of approval found its way onto one piece of product, his 2003 contribution to the Under the Influence series of vanity compilations that, unsurprisingly, included tracks from the New York Dolls, T.Rex, Sparks, and Nico.
This compilation helped usher in a new degree of interest as to the singer's
whereabouts, during a time when he was recording a new album after finally signing
a new record deal. The media campaign building up to the release of You Are
the Quarry was
a sight to behold, with advance promo copies far harder to find than magazines
featuring the singer's visage. The image being sold was that of an older, wiser
Morrissey who remained very sure of himself even as his own place in the world
seemed less sure. When last he'd put out a record, Napster was still a gleam
in Shawn Fanning's eye and Hanson, Jewel, and the Spice Girls ruled the airwaves.
Even with hot producer Jerry Finn (Blink-182, Sum 41) manning the boards, many
wondered how much interest there would be in the new album, or in his slot near
the top of the bill on the since-canceled Lollapalooza 2004 traveling festival
in the States.
Ears naturally perked up when the first fruits of this pairing with Finn, the
hard-charging "Irish Blood, English Heart" single, was released this spring.
The A-side found band and singer alike in fine form, Morrissey engaged in an
intriguing nature-versus-nurture debate, his ancestry smacking up against his
rearing, defiant in his Irishness while apologizing for the wrongdoings of his
English countrymen. The B-sides were also decidedly above average, from the wry "It's
Hard to Walk Tall When You're Small" to the somber "Munich Air Disaster
1958" and the ambitious orchestrations of "The Never-Played Symphonies." The
fans clamored for the album, and several weeks later, it arrived.
That You Are the Quarry (or, as the typography on its cover suggests, Morrissey, You Are the Quarry) opens with a track that sounds more like Dido than Morrissey served notice that our hero was certainly open to new sounds. "America Is Not the World" actually succeeds, despite rather than because of this blandly overproduced approach, the singer's voice offering forth a honeyed vocal with lines alternately poetic ("Steely-blue eyes/ With no love in them/ Scan the world/ And a humourless smile with no warmth within/ Greets the world" has anyone better characterized the world's view of America under George W. Bush?) and bathetic ("America/ It brought you the hamburger/ Well America/ You know where you can shove your hamburger"). Yet for all of this seeming anti-Americanism, Morrissey's concluding lines ooze sincerity: "Please know in your soul/ Hear through your ears please/ For haven't you me with you now? And I love you/ I love you/ I love you." If only it were so easy to love this album in spite of its many flaws.
And flaws there are, with many of the tracks sinking into a midtempo morass with
decidedly underdeveloped melodies and daft instrumentation. "I Have Forgiven
that the crew found Supertramp's old electric piano somewhere and decided to
write a song around it, proving again that no matter how much Brylcreem Morrissey's
backing band may employ, there isn't much of anything rockabilly about them underneath.
Doubly cringe-inducing is the flute solo that dominates the minute-long fadeout
to the shuffling "I'm Not Sorry."
Certain devilish reviewers have suggested that the quality of the music behind Morrissey is irrelevant, that no melody could possibly stand up to his vocals and persona. This is, of course, rather silly in light of the excellence of the music that accompanied him with The Smiths and during several periods of his solo career. Billy Bragg tried a cappella out and we saw what that got him; Morrissey knows better than to travel the music-free road, but he settles for the musically light path far too often. That an album so consumed with desire should be founded on such undesirable sounds is a near tragedy of Morrissey-esque proportions. Too many of the tunes that aren't just plain bad can perhaps best be described as "not bad." Akin to the gentleman's C from university, really.
Desire, you say? Quarry has it in spades, with Morrissey cursing two-thirds of the Holy Trinity for filling him with a love and lust that he can't express on "I Have Forgiven Jesus." "I'm Not Sorry" laments how the woman of the singer's dreams never came along, while earning kudos for the "Reach for my hand/ And the race is won/ Reject my hand/ And the damage is done" bit despite the seeming impossibility of the former ever happening to the ever-alone songwriter. The sumptuous "Let Me Kiss You" finds the imagination running into overdrive, the handsome and notoriously vain singer's claims to being "physically despise[d]" bringing the song into near slapstick territory, Morrissey's wonderful croon suggesting that the man who started his career writing amazing lyrics delivered through an underdeveloped set of vocal cords has flipped that old paradigm on its head.
And all of this is well and good (or well and good enough, as the case may be building toward), were it not for a number of truly, well, not-good songs. By far the best part of "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores" remains its title, while "How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel" never comes close to overcoming the chorus's dreadful rhyme of "shit" and "it," Morrissey channeling the rage of a petulant schoolboy throughout. Similarly uninspired are "All the Lazy Dykes" and the closing "You Know I Couldn't Last," which revisits the themes of "Paint a Vulgar Picture," the one song above all that will forever haunt Morrissey as he threatens to become the pop star forgotten by all but the fanatical few.
The album's second single is actually its orphaned misfit, the sprightly, character-driven "First of the Gang to Die." The song too easily seen as a tip of the cap to his strong Latin American fan base tells the tale of Hector, a "pretty petty thief" whom Morrissey views with the same admiration he has previously expressed for the Kray twins and the gang members from Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, the band throwing forth a catchy, simple tune behind him. If it's reactionary to say that this is the Morrissey we wish to remember, then it's defeatist to simply settle for the trifles he sees fit to foist upon the record-buying public. With the possible exception of the melancholy jangle of "My Life Is a Succession of People Saying Goodbye," the B-sides are wisely kept away from the album, interchangeable though they may be with its lesser moments.
There was a time when it was easy to quibble with which tracks on a Morrissey
album should be lifted as singles, simply because so much of the material seemed
worthy of selection. We are no longer living in that time. And though we keep
coming back when he offers forth another album, each disappointment reminds us
again of Dr. Johnson's quip about "the triumph of hope over experience," even
as we duly note that while Morrissey's light may never go out, it continues to