In 1987 a man stormed a Denver, Colorado, radio station and, at gunpoint, ordered a deejay to play the depressive pop of British band the Smiths for 24 hours--nonstop. This deranged young fan fantasized about the melancholy warbling of Smiths lead singer Morrissey ringing out all over the snowcapped city. But, alas, the fan was hauled away and his pile of requests went unplayed--probably to the relief of that station's listeners. One can only imagine how many calls would've clogged the local suicide hot line after just a few spins of the Smiths' "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now."
Steven Patrick Morrissey--militant vegetarian, pansexual provocateur and prominent British bigmouth--has always inspired extreme reactions. To some, his wobbly voice and anguished introspection have made him the quintessential postpunk poet. (Sorry Robert Smith.) But his songs have others plugging their ears faster than a Yoko Ono ballad.
Whether he's captivated or annoyed listeners, Morrissey has always gotten a rise out of his audience. He's been able to provoke with his politics (calling for the assassination of then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), his sexuality (proclaiming himself "prophet for the fourth gender"), and his concert shtick (taking the stage wearing a hearing aid--purely for cosmetic reasons, mind you--and carrying bouquets of gladiolas). "I'm not very good at being dull," he once said with characteristic understatement.
But lately the eccentricities of this nightingale have begun to lose their charm. Since the breakup of the Smiths in 1987, Morrissey has become a joke even in the eyes of some former fans. To many he's now "Morose-y" or "Mr. Malcontent"--a whining caricature of himself. Even the formerly fawning British rock press attacked his solo records so viciously that Morrissey now refuses to do interviews in his homeland.
WHILE MORRISSEY has still managed to move large quantities of his solo records, there's no denying that, artistically, the music's been a huge disappointment. With the Smiths, Morrissey was always finding witty and original ways to exorcise his despair. On "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" from the band's 1986 album The Queen Is Dead, he used black humor to temper his romantic fantasies about dying: "If a ten-ton truck killed the both of us/To die by your side--the pleasure, the privilege is mine."
But on his solo albums--1988's Viva Hate, '90's singles collection Bona Drag, and '91's Kill Uncle--Morrissey's despondent poetry has lost both its eloquence and gallows humor. Much of the time it's as if he's just ripping tortured passages out of his diary and setting them to music: "I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die--alone," he wails on "I Will Never Marry" from Bona Drag. That song proves there are still a few laughs on Morrissey's solo records, but they're all unintentional.
Musically, Morrissey's solo discs don't have much to recommend them either. The scattershot brilliance of the Smiths' songs lay in the contrast between singer-lyricist Morrissey's hypersensitivity and guitarist-songwriter Johnny Marr's pop aggression. If Morrissey let go with a lyric as dark as "A dreaded sunny day so I meet you at the cemetry gates," Marr would counter it with a bright, instantly catchy melody. That inspired dichotomy's been stripped from Morrissey's solo stuff.
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The music on Morrissey's latest solo effort, Kill Uncle, seems like an afterthought. The minimalist, midtempo and utterly forgettable tunes never get in the way of Morrissey's depressed bleating, which was obviously the goal of songwriter Mark Nevin. Unlike Stephen Street, who wrote the music on Viva Hate and most of Bona Drag, Nevin doesn't even bother to offer up a hummable melody now and then.
SEVERAL MONTHS back, Spin magazine reported that there were whisperings around Manchester, England--the Smiths' onetime home base--that the band was on the verge of getting back together. There's no telling how much truth there is to this rumor, but given the lackluster state of their solo careers it's likely Morrissey's former bandmates would jump at the chance to regroup. Bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce toured with Sinead O'Connor several years back, but their recent resumes don't list much else of note. (Rourke was hired by Killing Joke a year or so ago, but the band quickly sacked him, citing his inept playing and bad attitude.)
Since the Smiths split, Johnny Marr has sold his talents indiscriminately,