The less-miserable Morrissey.

The less-miserable Morrissey.

The less-miserable Morrissey.

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June 3 2004 2:30 PM

Sounds Like Teen Spirit

The new, less-miserable Morrissey.

Being a fan of Morrissey and the Smiths once meant being beholden to minutiae. Whether this means fixing on the incidental brush of your body against another's or learning the name of the engineer for The Queen Is Dead, Morrissey and Smiths' fans live for the small stuff. They understand the significance of the Salford Lads Club; they've acquired a secondhand love of Nancy Sinatra and Sandie Shaw; and they own all the different mixes of "This Charming Man" (at least six). They know that the young Morrissey was president of the New York Dolls' U.K. fan club and that he was a frequent letter-writer to the now-defunct British music weekly Melody Maker. Fans also know to regard renegade guitarist Johnny Marr with both contempt and pity for the sine wave that is his sad post-Smiths career.

One wonders whether anyone cares about such details anymore. The Smiths disbanded in 1987; Morrissey's last notable solo disc, Vauxhall and I, was released exactly 10 years ago. His latest album, You Are the Quarry (Attack/Sanctuary), arrived without the fanfare expected for one of the most influential, if not divisive, figures in the history of pop music. Though articles and reviews of the album have been positive, nostalgically regarding Quarry as a return to form, it seems that teenage malaise strikes a radically different pose nowadays. The Smiths, with their magical anthems of soft pride and tragic self-loathing, were the unlikely heroes for generations of young men who have now made fine careers out of peddling that same malaise in different form to new followers: Emo-rockers disguise the brittle, self-absorbed anguish of the Smiths in muscular power chords while the arena-sized mopes of fellow Brits like Coldplay and Radiohead paraphrase Morrissey's foppish misery. Even Andre 3000 of OutKast admits he's a huge fan.


It would seem that the irony is not lost on Morrissey. The aging star has always acted more concerned with the jut of his pompadour than with his place in the pop marketplace, but perhaps Quarry isn't as anachronistic or free-spirited as some suggest. Buried in the Quarry credits is the kind of tiny detail that goes unnoticed to many but gives Smiths fans fevers. It starts with an innocent credit—"Produced and mixed by Jerry Finn"—and ends with the shock of recognition: Finn is the producer and engineer responsible for the easily digestible, MTV-ready teen discontent of kiddie-punk groups like Blink-182 and Sum 41. While Finn knew better than to outfit Morrissey with chunky build-ups and chugging drums, he did coat Quarry with a sleek gloss. The tracks for "Let Me Kiss You," "I'm Not Sorry" and "America Is the Not the World" suffer from bland, Dido-ish tempos and meek arrangements; they feel tired and closed, despite Morrissey's playful tones. While "Irish Blood, English Heart" and "You Know I Couldn't Last" allow Morrissey to range high and low, their loud-quiet-loud histrionics feel overproduced and predictable.

Similarly, there is a closed, resigned, and almost pop-radio feel to Quarry's lyrics. While "I Have Forgiven Jesus" isn't as literal as its title suggests, it finds Morrissey at peace with his spiritual non-relationships rather than flailing helplessly against the torture of religious upbringing. One imagines a younger Morrissey poking fun at the polite groveling of "Come Back to Camden" ("Come back/ Come back to Camden and/ I'll be good") rather than joining in himself. The bitterly proud "Irish Blood, English Heart" sounds like a final reconciliation rather than patriotism while "I Like You" is a disarmingly brave declaration that rests on the three words he always seemed too painfully shy to say out loud.

Morrissey's brilliance has always been his knack for poeticizing the casual debris of everyday life; he himself matches the profile of the most zealous and detail-fanatical of fans, Smiths or otherwise. Fittingly, Quarry's best moment is "First of the Gang To Die," a soaring narrative packed with descriptions of pools of Los Angeles moonlight, the color of smashed bones, and a street gang called the Pretty Petty Thieves. Through the eyes of a rank-and-file admiring a fallen gang member named Hector—a nod to his thriving Mexican-American fan base—Morrissey cheekily imagines the thrills and spills of turf warfare: "I stole from the rich and the poor/ And the not-very-rich/ And the very poor." Another highlight is "This World Is Full of Crashing Bores," wherein Morrissey accuses police officers, accountants, and even himself of the worst of offenses: being very, very boring.

Save these witty moments, Quarry is less quotidian-obsessive than anything he's never done, and the strangest song here sets its sights on the biggest of pictures: the American empire. "America Is Not the World" moves with an inoffensive lilt that betrays Morrissey's lyrical lunge for controversy. He takes America to task for its hamburgers, big head, "humorless smile," and the fact that the president has never been "black, female, or gay." It's painfully awkward to witness the ever graceful and modestly political (pro-animal, anti- headmaster) Morrissey assign himself to such a huge new cause. This isn't to say the song is without humor, especially when he asks, "And don't you wonder why/ In Estonia/ They say/ 'Hey you (Hey you)/ Big fat pig (big fat pig)/ You fat pig (you fat pig)!' " And when he concludes the song with an admission of wounded faith—"I have got nothing/ To offer you/ Just this heart deep and true/ Which you say you don't need"—it lends the protest a complexity that most of his followers have yet to mimic well.

As long as there is high school, Morrissey and the Smiths will still matter, either in uncut form or through some second-rate imitator. But just as one might grow less enamored of their narcissistic gloom with age, it seems Morrissey himself has done the same. While it's doubtful he took former partner Marr's advice—"(H)e just needs "a good humping," Marr told journalist Nick Kent in 1985—Quarry's macro lyricism amounts to an admission: Despite the lows—and removed from the untamed romanticism of youth—being Morrissey isn't so bad. Life's not great,but it's also not as miserable as he once thought. And, to borrow from something he once said, such a little thing makes such a big difference.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.