Some Say He Got Devil – “California Son”, Morrissey

californiason

This is difficult.

Not for you I am sure.

You might be one of those people who have listened to Morrissey calling reggae “vile”, bleating on in support of For Britain and hailing Tommy Robinson and decided that there is no wiggle room…no defence…no other option than to declare this once charming man as a racist, a far right sympathiser and an alarming presence in popular culture.

I hear you.

I’ve heard him.

Taken individually, or out of their context, it is possible to dismiss much of the evidence for the prosecution with a breezy, “It’s just Morrissey being Morrissey” or to hide behind a defence of “He’s a provocateur.”

Hmmmm.

The only problem is…that would require there to be only one or two “incidents”.

We have long passed the point where these things can be viewed as mis-speaking.

Or at least many people have moved past viewing things that way.

They can no longer defend what they see as being indefensible.

This week alone a record store has refused to stock this new album…it’s not a ban no matter what the hysterical headline hacks say.  A private business choosing not to stock music by an artist who they believe to be awful is their choice.  Although it would be interesting to know if Spillers, the store in question, have taken a similar stance over Michael Jackson for example.

That might be “what-about-ery”.

I don’t mean it to be.

Me?

I believe in freedom of speech as an absolute unless it is advocating violence of some sort or another and I do not believe that hateful speech is the same as physical violence.

That doesn’t stop me from finding particular views, statements, proclamations and pronouncements challenging, unpleasant or offensive…I just don’t want to shut down people who hold those views.  Nor would I say some of those things myself.

You may disagree…good, I welcome that discussion.  That’s how it works.

But…

What about Morrissey then?

Can I separate the art from the artist?

Sort of is the best answer I can provide.

I’ve bought “California Son”.

Support or interest in Morrissey often slips into fanaticism or obsession…much of his fan base has more in common with a cult than we might like to admit.

I don’t agree with Morrissey’s support for certain groups and individuals, who I won’t even name here for fear of giving them the oxygen of publicity, and I have a terrible feeling that the man I fell so deeply in love and in awe of as a teenager no longer exists…maybe it would be weird if he did, people change right?

I’ve written before about Morrissey’s views and where I am with them both here and here.

The difficulty in reviewing the music now is that it is inextricably linked with the man and his views…what do I do about that?

I can condemn his support for certain people and groups.

I can express my upset at his political positions.

Can I still enjoy “Wedding Bell Blues”?

I think so.

I do enjoy it.

It’s better than any of the music he has released since “Ringleader of the Tormentors” back in 2006.

Oh, this is almost impossible.

Let’s take a breath.

Writing about music shouldn’t be this difficult.

Of course this would be a lot easier if it were anyone other than Morrissey…his music has meant more to me than that of any other artist.  I sort of wish that wasn’t the case to be honest…I wish I had devoted my time and energy to someone, well, better.  Tim Booth, PJ Harvey, Sonya Madan, Nick Cave…Hell, even Damon Albarn or Noel Gallagher.  People for whom the music matters most and who seem not to be quite so ugly.

The music then.

“Morning Starship” is a wonderful song, light and delicate, full of wit and charm, possessed of an autobiographical delicacy that sends shivers down the spine…but enough of the Jobriath version, how does Morrissey tackle it?  Honestly it is the best song he has recorded in a very long time…but it isn’t as good as any of his best moments and, musically, it is lumpen and full of dread where the Jobriath original was so wonderfully intimate and bright.

The decision to cover Joni Mitchell, “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow”, was a bold one.  Mitchell is an icon.  Her voice and her music are utterly unique.  Again the tenderness and fragility of the original is replaced with a heavy touch that leaves you trying to stop your arm from lifting the needle from the grooves.

Given his recent declarations of support for the likes of Tommy Robinson and For Britain one cannot help but feel there is something perverse about his decision to cover “Only a Pawn in Their Game” with its tale of race politics and the racism of the Jim Crow era South.  Is Morrissey suggesting that it is his audience who are, like the people of that era, being manipulated by the powerful?  Is he casting himself in the role of the only person who can see the “truth”?  He sounds good here regardless of any of that…but, for the third track in a row, the music is the biggest problem.  His band sound like they are playing with gloves on and under the influence of sedatives.

“Suffer the Little Children” can only have been selected because of the fact that its title is similar to that of a Smiths song because if he actually liked this song he wouldn’t have done what he has done to it here.  Buffy Sainte-Marie sang this like it was the last song anyone would ever hear, as if her life depended on it, filled with passion and righteous indignation…Morrissey and his gang turn it into a cheery old sing-along by the Old Joanna in some speak-easy in New Orleans.  Which sounds great…but it’s not.

I don’t have the energy to carry on with this track by track analysis.

It’s pointless.

“Wedding Bell Blues” is ace and so is “Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets” but the rest of it is as turgid as the songs I have already discussed here.

If we put the politics aside for a moment, and I know lots of you don’t want to, then you can look at “California Son” as a missed opportunity.  These are all great songs by iconic artists and if Morrissey had done something genuinely radical like, I don’t know, get some musicians in the studio who could play in a manner that suited the material then this could have been really wonderful.

He didn’t.

It’s not.

I’m sorry this is such a mess…but maybe that’s the only correct response to Morrissey at this stage, certainly for people like me who once loved him so.