A handful of weeks back, Morrissey took ill and was forced to cancel a run of US tour dates. The source of his malady was mysterious, and the nature of his response to the cancellations was typically, pricelessly acid and morbid. In what may as well have amounted to the Gettysburg Address of press releases (or at least Lincoln as imagined by Kingsley Amis) he commenced with the following rollicking and slightly unnerving reverse of a famous epigram: “The rumors of my death have been greatly understated.” He was just kidding. We think.
But that is the thing about Morrissey, isn’t it? The jokes are great, but we never really know when the witticism ends and the real life trauma begins. Has any songwriter ever existed so fully and tantalizingly in the imagination of his audience despite (or because) of his unwillingness to truly reveal himself to them? From his politics to his sexuality to his attitude toward the arts in general, paradox and enigma are Morrissey’s true mediums. He invites conjecture with lyrics that seem profoundly personal and relatable, but shrugs off attempts to connect them to his actual biography. He is generally on three sides of every thorny issue, with the seeming exception of his volatile commitment to vegetarianism. He is either the most rigorously self-involved major rock star of his era, or the most drolly ironic in his shrugging self-deprecation, depending on which single, full-length album, or concert you happen to catch. Throughout his sometimes ingenious, sometimes stupefying, always compelling stylistic digressions, Morrissey’s stock has only risen to the point where few would dare to question his place in the pantheon of all-time greats.
In the aftermath of the Smiths, Morrissey was inevitably going to be compared in terms of achievement with his crucial collaborator in that great group, Johnny Marr. As we sit down to wrestle with the knotty and obviously highly subjective question of the ten best songs of Morrissey’s solo years, Johnny Marr has just this week managed his first release. Nobody doesn’t love Johnny Marr, but it begs the question — what happened?? Who would have guessed that Moz would have a 25-year head start on enhancing his legacy, while Marr worked diligently but was also often largely overlooked as a sideman? What does this tell us about the dynamics that really drove the Smiths? It seems myopic to at least not draw some logical conclusions in that regard.
And it would seem myopic to not at least ponder the proposition that as unimpeachably great as the Smiths were, Morrissey as a solo artist might someday soon, if he hasn’t already, eclipse their achievements. His most recent records Years Of Refusal and Ringleader Of The Tormentors have scorched the Earth in different ways from his early classics Viva Hate and Your Arsenal, but scorched the fucker just the same. Health concerns aside (and they seem at least somewhat genuine) there is zero reason to imagine that the man has anything less than a few more classics left in him. If it feels heretical to say it (and it does) consider the following future proposition: The Smiths were that great band that lasted a few years. Eventually, they launched the Mancunian Sinatra — a brilliant four-decade entertainer who knew no limits. Not bad for a small fat child in a welfare house.
10. “All You Need Is Me” (from Years Of Refusal, 2009)
This sterling, no-holds-barred rocker from 2009’s tour de force Years Of Refusal finds Morrissey’s signature style of bare-knuckled romantic brawling refined to a uniquely hardened edge. Over a catchy, full band progression, Moz lays bear one of his cruelest and most clever romantic indictments in years. The lyrics “You hiss and groan/and you constantly moan/ but you don’t ever go away” will be familiar to any individual who has found themselves on the business end of a co- dependent nightmare that can only be adjourned via the harshest terms.
9. “My Love Life” (1991 single)
The gentle, chiming, and uniquely sentimental 1991 single “My Love Life” is every bit as life affirming as many of Morrissey’s more dyspeptic musings — a kind of unexpected antidote for all that would make you want to crawl into the darkest available hole in the ground. As much as we love Morrissey dressed handsomely in all of his considerable rhetorical armor, there is something even more appealing when he lets his guard down and is at his most vulnerable. That is the version we hear on “My Love Life.” He wonders, “I know you love one person, so why don’t you love two?” It is amidst the saddest laments in the modern tradition. And on some level we have all been there. Here Morrissey puzzles over why, in spite of everything, he is not special enough.
8. “Now My Heart Is Full” (from Vauxhall and I, 1994)
For an artist with an arsenal of fantastic lead tracks, “Now My Heart Is Full” might rank as the very best. This is Morrissey at his most Dylan- or Costello-addled, overcome with things to say, but uncharacteristically confused about the time and meter in which to say them. And yet, the effect is incredibly exhilarating, whether it’s a seemingly arbitrary but entirely appropriate reference to Graham Greene or just a firsthand report of intimate family dysfunction writ large. Emerging in 1994, this is a crushingly powerful moment that anticipates two decades of visceral music from one of our greatest artists.
7. “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” (from Your Arsenal, 1992)
That the cheerful, winsome melodic rush of “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” belies its fundamentally toxic message is likely not a coincidence. Morrissey has often contemplated his contemporaries and critics, but rarely had anything overly cruel to say. This particular paean from 1992’s Your Arsenal likely addressed the ascendant successes of fellow Manchester acts like the Stone Roses or Happy Mondays, while allowing as an aside, “It should have been me.” By the end of the day he would prove more prolific and trenchant by orders of magnitude. But as a great pop song and intriguing look into Morrissey’s mind, this bit of semi-vituperative bare envy stands the test of time as his very own “Positively 4th Street.”
6. “Hairdresser On Fire” (from Bona Drag, 1990)
The impeccably rendered character study “Hairdresser On Fire” is the sort of thing one can only imagine Morrissey pulling off. Over the course of its infectious 3:53 running time, the tone regarding the titular, hot-running hair stylist (“you are repressed/ but you’re remarkably dressed”) shifts from longing to exasperation to withering sarcasm, before ending again on a note of longing. Here Morrissey exhibits his strange capacity to come off as utterly hectoring and deeply compassionate within the space of the same song. In the tradition of the best lyricists, he is also able to pull back from his personal drama and give a panoramic overview of his community at large — beginning the song with the memorable, evocative verse: “Here is London, giddy London/ Is it home of the free/ Or what?”
5. “First Of The Gang To Die” (from You Are The Quarry, 2004)
This undeniably infectious but morally complicated track from You Are The Quarry recalls similar romantic portraits of career criminalsmeeting their demise such as Bob Dylan’s “Joey” or Moz’s own “The Last Of The Famous International Playboys.” The depiction of young Hector — the first of his criminal street gang to meet his mortal end — is both indictment and tribute. Morrissey (who lived for many years inLos Angeles and deeply identifies with his large Mexican native audience) portrays his subject warts and all: as a “silly boy,” one who stole from “the rich and the poor, and the not very rich and thevery poor.” Whatever the troubling associations of the protagonist, this is a track pitched as pure human tragedy played out as romantic power pop. No matter what Hector pilfered in his criminal dealings, Moz informs us that the greatest loss was that he “stole our hearts away.”
4. “Glamorous Glue” (from Your Arsenal, 1992)
The second track from Morrissey’s brilliant glam-digression Your Arsenal, “Glamorous Glue” sounds like a tougher-edged take on the Smiths classic “Sheila Take A Bow,” courtesy of terrific production from the legendary former Ziggy & the Spiders lead guitarist Mick Ronson. With Ronson providing a stripped-down and guitar-heavy sound reminiscent of Moz’s early heroes T-Rex, Morrissey engages his most stringently contrarian impulses, intimating such apparent nationalistic sentiments as “We look to Los Angeles for the language we use,” “We won’t vote conservative/ because we never have,” and “London is dead.” All of this raises the question of whether Morrissey is either parodying or explicitly flirting with right-wing sentiments, or both. Typical of the artist, it still remains unclear even after he has walked us through the thoroughly catchy, possibly appalling “The National Front Disco.” Any way you look at it, this is some of Morrissey’s best and most troubling music. If Your Arsenal is, in fact, a 39:45 consideration of the relative virtues of right-wing politics, it nevertheless remains a brilliantly rendered distillation of the best of the recent British tradition of rock and roll, and every bit as challenging (and confusing) as the edicts of the Pistols and the Jam.
3. “The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils” (from Southpaw Grammar, 1995)
Like Marmite, people seem to either love or hate Southpaw Grammar. We love it. Album opener “The Teachers Are Afraid Of Their Pupils” is perhaps the best example of why this record might be polarizing (and also why it’s great). It’s 11 minutes long, punctuated by a repetitive — some might argue punishing — sample from Soviet classical composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, and is not big on laughs or bonhomie (first line, “There’s too many people planning your downfall” does not make one’s faith in humanity necessarily swell). In short, some might consider it a tough hang. But this is also one of Moz’s most inventive and exciting contributions to his already estimable catalogue. In a typically contrarian gesture, the song’s content flies directly in the face of such classics as Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” or for that matter, the Smiths’ “Headmaster Ritual,” both of which address the problem of abusive teachers looming over impressionable and easily intimidated students. This track takes the opposite position — that the noble pursuit of being an educator is just an exercise in humiliating futility.
2. “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” (from Vauxhall And I, 1994)
As the emotional centerpiece of Vauxhall And I this masterful and moving track is a grand, sweeping declaration of love and loyalty refracted through the lens of anger, disillusion, and unmet expectations. Over a classic riff and fetching mid-tempo arrangement, Morrissey unleashes a handful of corkers, demonstrating his peerless skills as a lyricist. Who else would think to wring great humor from the repetition in the lament “I will be at the bar/ with my head on the bar,” or to worryingly underscore his pledge of fidelity with the ominous promise: “Beware I hold more grudges/ than lonely high court judges.” But mainly what we are left with is a modern standard with a chorus that posits true love not as a cute accident, but rather a deliberate and forceful act of will: “The more you ignore me/ the closer I get/ I’ve made up your mind.”
1. “Suedehead” (from Viva Hate, 1988)
Perhaps Morrissey’s best-known, most loved track (fellow Stereogum contributor James Jackson Toth describes “Suedehead” as Morrissey’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”) — and with good reason: It’s unimpeachably, undeniably great, and utterly ubiquitous. If nothing else, Morrissey proved to us that, fresh out of the gate as a solo artist, he was able to write one of the best Smiths songs never written by the Smiths. Soaring, catchy, mordant and stirring, “Suedehead” finds Morrissey bang to rights as the true genius behind the Smiths. No one else could — or should — ever sing, “I am so sickened now” and then immediately launch into a singalong refrain of “It was a good lay.” No one but Morrissey.