What an enviable position in which Steven Patrick Morrissey finds himself. It is, I dare say, quite privileged, but we’ll get back to that. He is a spokesman for Morrissey alone: not for a bygone era of guitar-spined indie pop; not for the Cool Britannia movement that emerged, like a cicada swarm, from Morrissey’s fixation on the England of his youth. He essentially walked away from the mysterious destruction of his creative partnership with Johnny Marr with nary a speck on his blouse. During their five-year tenure, the Smiths parked two singles — “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Sheila Take a Bow” — at No. 10. Each of Morrissey’s first four singles peaked no lower than 9; he has had 10 UK Top Tens as a solo act while notching two US Modern Rock No. 1s, one of which (“The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get”) scraped into the top half of the Hot 100. Despite his estrangement from a master synthesist — the man responsible for the Smiths’ silken sonic embroidery — he emerged with his image fully intact. Even better, he was set free: to present himself in new stylistic contexts, to say whatever shit he pleased without bandmate blowback.
Perhaps the one thing stronger than any desire to speak for the outsider or become a British chart fixture is Morrissey’s curatorial impulse. Even wayward pilgrims on the Mecca of Moz recognize many of the stations: the gladioli, the National Health glasses, cover art taken from movies of the ’50s and ’60s, that quiff, asexuality, vegetarianism. Jobriath and Bardot and the Dolls. Critics tear their sheets apart dreaming of the tastemaker status his fanbase accords him. His powers of curation even apply to public statements and interviews: He has done and he has said stupid things, and they have been wished away as masterful acts of irony. Lord only knows what it’s like to be a clever boy, poked by the press, wishing to poke back. Lennon developed a hardy persecution complex; Morrissey maintained an address book well-stocked with lawyers.
As usual, Morrissey’s problematic actions — the anti-immigration sentiments, the asinine dismissal of dance music and modern R&B performers, the casual manner in which he knocked around tough-guy skinhead imagery — make more sense in the context of his native medium. Slagged as the Pope of Mope from the first LP, his lyrical gifts eluded many of his critics and a fair number of his devotees. His first-generation Stateside fans, sulking in their bedrooms, imagined their fey idol doing the same. But Morrissey sprang himself from the confines of home (with more than a little help from Marr), and anyway, even when he was at home, he was dashing off letters to music mags, touting his glammy idols.
Glam may well be the key to unlocking Morrissey. The buzz trail laid by punk acts like the Sex Pistols, which enthralled so many other Mancunian teens, never truly captured his fancy. Punk and glam were both attempts to tease new dialects out of rock and roll; punk focused on rage and resentment (which Morrissey shared), but glam offered the chance to turn one’s privilege inside-out, to be louche and beguiling, even while you’re offering the same four-chord come-ons. Young Steven filed these provocations away, demonstrating the rigor of his studies in ways both straightforward (offering his body to the world’s gaze, supplanting Marr’s Nashville tuning with rockabilly twang) and subtle (fixing an eye on what something — himself, you, Manchester, history — is and is not). Far from a gothic loller, wishing for supremely melodramatic fatality, Morrissey was (and is) a gifted chronicler of bygone sensations, familiar insecurities and easily accessed angers. Always prone to contradiction rather than clarification, Morrissey was pleased to wreak havoc on his native press, then escape to the unqualified embrace of a worldwide fanbase.
As a vocal stylist, Morrissey is given to quotes, not hooks. Leaving the specifics of structure to his collaborators, he’s free to approach the track crosswise, extending verses, splicing bridges and linking phrases into the oddest places. A singer of decidedly limited capability at the start of his career (the Smiths or a brief stint fronting Slaughter and the Dogs: take your pick), he worked tirelessly to broaden his range. At the age of 50, he’s more commanding than ever. Knowing he could never replace Marr, he largely punted on the task, adding glam, orchestral bombast and straight-ahead rock to his repertoire. As the man once said, that’s how people grow up. To many, Morrissey will forever be the prince of the misfits, but a cursory scan of his output shows a man forever twisting and gnarling the meaning of love, loneliness, and memory.