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Morrissey, California Son, review: Album’s missteps might be forgiven if you could dissociate the music from the man

Can we listen to a new album from an old hero who’s broken our hearts? It seems not

Helen Brown
Friday 24 May 2019 18:35 BST
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Morrissey has released his new album California Son
Morrissey has released his new album California Son (Getty)

I was 16 years old when I first saw Morrissey live at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall in October 1991. I remember the rush and push of adoration, which lifted me off my feet from the first chords of “The Last of the International Playboys”. I know he had done better gigs, but this was one of my first.

For an awkward, bookish kid from Midlands suburbia, it was an electric baptism of noise, drama and devotion. Shirts were ripped from his sweat-soaked body and rage, wit and yearning arced from his lips. Like a character from a Smiths’ song, I missed my curfew to queue in the dark and damp for a dreary glimpse of him scuttling from the stage door to his tour bus.

For the encore, he sang “Disappointed”, the B-side from 1988’s single, “Everyday is Like Sunday”: “All your friends and your foes/ Would rather die than have to touch you/ To say the least, I’m truly disappointed/ Truly, truly, truly, oh.” Then he dropped the mic and declared that was the last song he would ever sing. (A trick he went on to repeat for the rest of the tour.)

And now, like most Smiths/Morrissey fans, I am the one feeling truly, truly disappointed, wishing that when he dropped the mic that night he had dropped it for good. I’m not going to rehash the details of the appalling, far-right rubbish Morrissey has embraced in recent years. Most other critics have done that – you can go Google.

The question now is: can we listen to a new album from an old hero who’s broken our hearts? Morrissey’s people (or Morrissey himself, who knows?) decided in advance that a liberal newspaper such as The Independent wouldn’t want to like it, so they refused to give us an advance stream. A pain in the arse politically and professionally, then.

But here’s the thing. I put it on this morning and, oh God, I still love his voice. The gorgeous, wounded soar and swoop of it. He’s singing covers, so we are spared the agony of unpicking lyrics for awful, racist references. He sounds like a man making a last stand at the local working man’s club – with all the paunchy guts and rheumy-eyed pathos that suggests.

The arrangements are suitably bombastic: there’s a theremin camping up the pub piano on his cover of Laura Nyro’s ”Wedding Bell Blues”. His version of Bruce Wayne Campbell’s (aka Jobriath) 1973 glam stomp “Morning Starship” really sells the wry/cosmic lyrics about a girl picking a rocket’s lock with her hairpin: “I stood within the threshold silently/ A ray of moonlight caught her eyes/Without a word she said, ‘Could I come in?’/ I said, ‘Well you’re in already/ You might as well sit down and stay awhile.’”

Although you can hear him rushing to fit lines to the click track and the high notes are stretched thin, there’s a tenderness to his cover of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over”. A friend came over to listen with me: “I don’t hate this,” she winced. “I think I really like it. I just couldn’t choose to listen to it now.” Fans are all going to have to make up their own minds. Maybe there’s a middle ground: listen to it for free and don’t give him your money?

If it makes it easier to resist, I can tell you Morrissey’s take on Joni Mitchell’s “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” is leaden jazz karaoke, stripping the original of all its haze and drift. The electro-stomp/harp, fading to reflective piano fade-out of his reworking of Melanie Safka’s ”Some Say I Got Devil”, makes a joke of his lifelong self-pity.

It was that dry, knowing self-pity I once loved and my parents loathed. “Turn that awful, whining music off!” my mum would yell up the stairs. It breaks my heart. I could have forgiven this album its missteps if I could dissociate the music from the man. It’s really not bad. But I can’t. Alright, mum. I’m turning it off now.

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