Morrissey Puts His Stamp on a Collection of Covers for ‘California Son’
Morrissey is a voice that has expressed eternal unspoken mentalities of angst, awkwardness, empathy, and general outsider posturing since the ‘80s, and continues to do so albeit often in a generally diluted form. His latest album is titled “California Son,” which should strike as a surprise, coming from someone who once released a song called “Irish Blood, English Heart,” and continues to play out his every gesture and action in an almost farcical example of Englishness. The record is a collection of covers, pulling from varied sources, and using the original songs mainly as a mere creative stimulus, rather than standards to be emulated. Only the most dedicated devotees would suggest that this lives up to his best work, but it does still have moments that capture the spark that he’s made his name by.
There are few voices in popular music more distinctive than Morrissey’s, and this fact makes itself clear within the first few seconds of opener “Morning Starship,” originally by Jobriath, for whom Morrissey hasn’t been the least bit shy about expressing his admiration, over the years. All of his characteristic inflections and melodic instincts are instantly on display, sure to excite long-term fans in a flash. The lyrics are as poetic as we’ve come to expect from a Morrissey song, with lines like “The crystal glint of the turning glass / The creaking sound of the rusted latch.” The only drawback comes in some of the musical stylings, like a whooshing accent and a powerhouse distorted guitar bit that give the music a very generic, bland feeling that seems out of step with the singer. This has been an issue plaguing Morrissey’s music since at least 2004’s “You Are the Quarry,” and continues to be a limiting factor for much of the latest album. If you consider Morrissey’s original teaming with Johnny Marr in the days of the Smiths, later relative dullness seems nearly inevitable, as Marr’s musical ingenuity and creative intricacy make him a peerless figure. Still, the full spectrum of music today is more exciting than ever, and Morrissey could have set himself up with much more engaging sounds than he has. It seems like he stopped adapting and evolving at some point in the ‘90s, and has remained in these stagnant, vestigial stylistic confines ever since, in the way that people who reach a certain age often do. Morrissey’s iconic and iconoclastic nature would make us expect more of him, but on the other hand, he has been someone famously both stubborn and a bit, say, out of step with the world, so it isn’t ultimately that much of a surprise after all.
Nothing screams Morrissey more than a title like “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” picked from the legendary Joni Mitchell’s catalogue. The eternal drama queen is still at it, and other than some slightly jarring synth sounds, this could almost pass as a Smiths song, due to its relative timelessness, until a grand surprise comes in the ending with some saxophone soloing. We should have all seen this coming. This type of flamboyance is just fitting for Moz, in line with all the silliness of his dancing and theatrics, and ends up working quite surprisingly well. Bob Dylan’s “Pawn In the Game” showcases Morrissey’s penchant for narrative songcraft dating back to songs like “This Night Has Opened My Eyes” and later ones like “First of the Gang to Die.” As with all such tracks, the wealth is in the details, which are in this case brought out by a fanciful accordion-rich arrangement.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Suffer the Little Children” is seemingly meant to confuse, from its similarity to the Smiths’ “Suffer Little Children,” but not bearing any conspicuous relation to it. It is, however, a beaming example of Morrissey at his best, over a backdrop both festive and slightly melancolic, in a way that could scarcely better amplify his sensibilities. Children suffering has long been a theme in Morrissey’s music, with plenty lyrics over the years about a dreary English town, a cruel headmaster, etc. and this continues in that tradition with a jubilance to the music that belies the gravity of the subject matter in yet another Morrissey tradition. “Days of Decision,” originally by Phil Ochs, begins with the god awful, tacky synth sounds that he is so found of these days, but then recedes to a strumming guitar backing that could be out of Marr’s songbook, except less creative. A reflective, meandering tune, it conjures the likes of Morrissey hiking Alan Partridge-style in a decidedly English manner.
One thing that has made Morrissey’s music always stand out starkly over the years is the absolute disregard for respecting any conventional parameters regarding expressions of doom and gloom, and while this album doesn’t quite match up to his acid jabs of legend, his rendition of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” begins with “Your baby doesn’t love you anymore,” as if designed specifically to vouch for a lifetime of commiserating. Singer LP collaborates on this track, and is very much the star feature, with her fluttering, abandoned, operatic voicings near the end approaching something like Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig In the Sky.” Next comes a variation of Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues,” possibly the most overtly gay song from Morrissey to date, with him asking a guy named Bill to marry him. Morrissey is known for his “ambiguous sexuality,” with songs like “This Charming Man” balanced with songs like “Girlfriend in a Coma.” When pressured by an intrusive journalist to officially come out of the closet, he once responded, “I’m gay? That’s news to me.” In light of his autobiography, however, it seems like this is merely his way of retaining some element of mystique with the tabloids, and this song could be seen as either a graduation from that or a betrayal of it, depending on your perspective.
A new contender for the most Morrissey title ever comes in the adaptation of Dionne Warwick’s “Loneliness Remembers When Happiness Forgets,” a song styled with as much hipster irony as you might expect from the title. Moz has listed Elvis Presley as one of his three biggest influences, and this makes its way clearly into the following song, “Will Power,” originally performed by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, both in an inflection that echoes one from “Suspicious Minds” and in a lyrical snippet clipped directly from “It’s Now Or Never.” It’s a throwback track with horns blasting in a style that recalls the Four Tops and various Motown acts, and an environment that suits Morrissey very well. Moz’s take on Carly Simon’s “When You Close Your Eyes” is very much a low point, essentially embodying all the disagreeable points of Morrissey’s recent output — sad sappiness, but deprived of poeticism, ghastly musical choices.
Fortunately, the ensuing track, a reworking of Tim Hardin’s “Lenny’s Tune” has enough character in it to compensate. There are echoes of Smiths songs like “Last Night I Dreamed That Somebody Loved Me,” and a touching tale about losing a friend, which falls neatly into Morrissey’s tradition of sentimental, brooding, gothic romancing. Loud, reverberating thuds ring in the closer, Melanie’s “Some Say I Got Devil,” seemingly titled as an overdue explanation of personality after nearly four decades of raging and whining. It’s an effective final track, panning out from all of the bluster in a way that could hardly be more thematically appropriate.
The glaring issue that seething critics worldwide can’t seem to stop belaboring is that Morrissey’s selection of songs for this album, best exemplified by the choices of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, seem to contradict some of his political posturings, leading many to scream “Hypocrite!” The fact of the matter, however, is that Morrissey’s entire appeal has always stemmed largely from his bold refusal to conform to any category. When he first emerged in the scene, he danced like a lunatic in front of a bedroom mirror, throwing out lines that seemed clipped from the works of Oscar Wilde, with a combination of sarcasm and pureness of purpose that struck a chord with the masses in a way that conventional industry sheep were never able to make sense of. This is a man who sticks to what he believes in, and couldn’t care less about what you think — something for which he should be applauded for, and continues to be by fans worldwide. “California Son” is a musically patchy release, with many tepid and stale aspects, but still retains enough of Morrissey’s unique spirit to ultimately prove a treat to fans.
“California Son” is available May 24 on Apple Music.