Record Of The Week # 71

August 19, 2019

Morrissey – California Son

Johnny Marr, who wrote the music for The Smiths (whilst Stephen Morrissey wrote the words), was across the media this summer either talking about his new album or playing Glastonbury. The importance of The Smiths still endures. They split in 1987. For all Marr’s dazzling arrangements and tunes, that accompanied Morrissey’s lyrics, then he is only revered as an historic figure. I doubt his commercial success since adds up to much.

Morrissey still has a large and enthusiastic following and each release is eagerly awaited. However, his latest album received some bemused and ignorant reviews. The ‘youfs’ who were instructed to write about his latest release of covers were irritated about being instructed to write about a 60 year old man’s record. Not least all the covers were a mystery to them; no doubt had them scrabbling around on Spotify to hear the originals. These songs mainly originate from the 1960s and 70s. They also had disdain for Morrissey’s politics. Having politics is not a handicap for today’s musicians providing it is to the Left and sneering.

Morrissey is still coveted by the record industry with a recording contract with BMG and a large worldwide fan base who adore this irascible, complicated, self obsessed one off. His regular recorded output is always important. He’s found good collaborators to work with and his lyrical content still has touches of genius.

For me The Smiths without Morrissey’s image and lyrics would be nothing: sorry Johnny.

Morrissey’s literary and readable but completely unreliable autobiography, Morrissey, spends some time dwelling on his escape into popular music and his conflicting emotions with his awakening homosexuality. I knew many of the records he grew up obsessing about. The imagery that inspired him meant a lot less to me but I can well remember the impact and excitement of much of it.

It’s an obscure artist called Jobriath, the first openly gay artist signed to a major record label, where he starts. It is a bright pop tune called “Morning Starship”. I liked this but his foray into the world of Joni Mitchell had me anxious. He was potentially dabbling with alchemy. However “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” is a magnificent version. He captures the dynamics of the song which are little to do with the lyric or tune. It’s more to do with Joni’s jazz sensibilities and arrangement. 

Having despatched that with aplomb he turns his attention to Dylan and renders a striking and marching take on “Only A Pawn In Their Game”. This was written about the assassination of a Black American Civil Rights Activist. Whether Morrissey is acknowledging his thoughts on this, his own marginalisation as a gay man or simply genuflecting to the most important American popular music artist of his age you can only speculate.

Further songs are by several 70s female singer songwriters – Carly Simon, Melanie, Laura Nyro and Buffy Saint-Marie. You can well imagine a teenage boy sat in his Manchester bedroom absorbing the open and honest heartfelt emotions of these ladies.

However, he does pick some former ‘singles’ and Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” and Gary Puckett’s “Lady Willpower” require a good voice to carry off. In that department he has everything you need.

The production remains crisp, pacy and somehow has an attractive hard brittle surface that makes it more contemporary and compelling. This is important in order to elevate a covers album from being a weary muse or a cop out by an established but uninspired artist. 

Whatever your thoughts then you can’t ignore him (and neither should you).

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