Alliances Severed Once More
By Andrew Stevens.
Morrissey, You Are The Quarry, Attack Records, May 2004
The past few years have seen no records released and while he has agonised over his identity and place in the music business today, questions have been raised over his sexuality during his time away from the public eye. But enough of Prince’s attempt to make a comeback, 2004 sees Morrissey’s first material since 1997’s Maladjusted. In all fairness, the latter half of the 1990s saw me display little interest in the man, save for playing The Smiths’ and his first few solo albums and leafing through Johnny Rogan’s seminal Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance occasionally. Endless name-checking by Noel Gallagher et al demonstrated why, beyond what was generally accepted as a stinker that was Southpaw Grammar, this situation remained in place.
Fast forward a few years and the Morrissey/Marr influence is all pervasive once again. At 45 with greying temples and in self-imposed exile in LA, Steven of Stretford now occupies a niche as the elder statesman of indie. No longer the automatic recipient of ‘Solo Artist of the Year’ in NME Readers’ Polls, he is now considered a god-like genius like John Peel or Mark E.Smith, that other Mancunian (whose name lent itself to The Smiths in the first place). His explorations of Englishness, which first manifested themselves in the ambiguous pseudo-nationalist stylings of Your Arsenal in 1992, including his East End fetishism, though derided at the time are now seen as presciently-observed. Bookshelves groan under the weight of biographies of the man and analyses of the Smiths phenomenon. Some even consider him a candidate for canonisation. Though without a record deal for some time, he finds himself on an imprint of the Sanctuary Group — Attack Records, the erstwhile reggae label of the 70s. Not bad for someone who once famously (tongue-in-cheek) declared the genre “vile”, thus deepening the accusations of racism that were frequently levelled against him.
For me, a defining feature of Morrissey’s solo career has been his ability to record decent singles and be content to leave albums full of chaff. You Are The Quarry is not only consistent in this, it also suffers from the distinct lack of an obvious second single to lift once ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ has served its purpose of notifying the public that he’s releasing records once more. As a single, ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ has much to commend for it — stop/start syncopation, phaser on the guitars, rousing choruses. It also lays Morrissey’s decade-long exploration of themes of English identity completely bare and strips away the lingering ambiguity that once saw journalists retreat into chattering class-like derision. He makes himself very clear: “I’ve been dreaming of a time when/To be English is not to be baneful/To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial.” In doing so, he makes it apparent that he concurs with New Labour’s nu patriotic stylings (reclaiming the flag from the Powellite right and the opprobrium of the liberal elite), yet he also pines for an England where people “are sick to death of Labour/And Tories”.
Opening track ‘America Is Not The World’ treats the US’ assumed role of global hegemon, world policeman and cultural standard-bearer with due contempt, while mentioning that he actually likes the place itself (well he does live there). So you might think that You Are Quarry is something of a cerebral examination of searching issues of English identity and globalisation. You’d be vastly mistaken as the album is pretty much front-loaded in that regard, the first two songs offer an upbeat beginning but it’s a bumpy ride musically and lyrically thereafter. ‘I Have Forgiven Jesus’ and ‘Come Back to Camden’ are flat and go nowhere, ‘The First of the Gang to Die’ suggests some promise and revisits earlier Morrissey song themes but leaves the listener merely wanting. ‘All The Lazy Dykes’ is ‘You’re The One for Me, Fatty’ without the Polecats’ chugging bass and spiky guitar licks. In fact, the album suffers on the whole from over-production by Jerry Finn (who is more accustomed to working with the likes of Blink 182) and backing music that would, depending on the tempo of the track, be more suited to David Gray or Republica. It’s almost as if he wasn’t consulted on the music to be used, as if he just laid down the vocals and allowed someone else carte blanche on what to put them over.
Morrissey ends the album by stating ‘You Know I Couldn’t Last’, with a fade out of “The squalor of the mind…”. Clearly not, but a poverty of ideas is all too present. He could have released Metal Machine Music and an army of devoted fans would instantly lap it up, but it’s all too apparent we have another Maladjusted on our hands here. Like the monarchy he rails against and The Grave Maurice pub on Whitechapel Road (the cover image for his recent Under The Influence compilation), he is an institution in decline. At least he hasn’t been outshined by anything Johnny Marr’s done in the last few years is all I can say, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts and all that.
2010 note: Regardless of how our views and perceptions of an artist’s work can change over time, not least in light of how their career later progresses, not many reviewers are prepared to re-evaluate their stance in public and admit they were wrong. Perhaps a cheap stereo in a Whitechapel flat wasn’t the best place to give the album an airing, but on reflection: I was wrong. Johnny Rogan still rocks though.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 18th, 2004.