Morrissey California Son (BMG)
Morrissey's new opus is effectively his Pin-Ups album with a twist, twelve covers, all American, Joni Mitchell being the Canadian exception who we'll naturalize for the sake of a good conceit. It hopefully means he will pay a further lip service with another album of well-chosen English delights. This is a rare confection and something of an audio treat. He is in excellent voice, a sympathetic interpreter of the work of others and the selection bears evidence of the wide variety of his taste and personal listenings. Understated when necessary, but never lacking in dynamism, he saunters along with some well known old friends whilst introducing the odd obscurity along the way.
The opening track is a blistering take on Jobriath's "Morning Starship" a song whose dramatic impact betrays with utter certainty the inherent song-craft of the sole American contender to '70s Bowie's and his glittering crown. Sadly the much maligned leper boy of glam is not above ground for his belated close-up, he died from AIDS related complications in the Chelsea Hotel in 1983. Unfettered homophobia was an accepted stance amongst the bearded music scribes of the time, Jobriath was mocked, but Morrissey rids the song of his shrillness and it packs an assured punch as an introduction to both Jobriath's talent, and Morrissey's recent endeavors. It is also an act of genuine creative kindness to someone who saw little of that attribute in his time. It weaves all power chords and harpsichord into an anthem for a alien
There is a haunting element to Joni Mitchell's "Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" as though Miss Mitchell is the spectre in the studio, the ghost in the machine, It slinks and shimmers with guitars, sax and light percussive licks, all coated via a tastefully flowing vocal. There is sunshine aplenty in this rendition, just as there is a strangely 'Game Of Thrones' dirge-like melancholy to Dylan's "Only A Pawn In The Game" that suggests the late Kirsty MaColl without ever descending to the cartoon Irish-ness of The Pogues. A dark but driven rendition that neatly slides into an almost laconic version of Buffy Saint Marie's "Suffer The Little Children," but with an undercurrent of jolly menace that you could line dance to if such a mood hit you.
"Days Of Decision" breathes a spectral life into the words of Phil Ochs. I'd never noticed before, but there is a real similarity in timbre to Morrissey's more pathos-laced vocals to the the late protest singer's delivery. It is a song that still has tremendous relevance in the modern age, and stands supreme as a timely retelling. There is a total Chris Isaak fluidity on Roy Orbison's "It's Over" that reveals just how fine a crooner Morrissey can be with something of a David Lynchian gloominess that steers well clear of Orbison's gothic drama. "Wedding Bell Blues" ups the tempo once more with a vocal shared with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. It veers dangerously closely to cabaret rendition that could do with some of the strident oomph of Laura Nyro's original, or the 5th Dimensions's, who effectively made it their own.
"Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets" redresses the balance to a pace of greater sure-footedness. A fab vocal that should be on repeat play on the juke-box in some lost beatnik dive, it is a Dionne Warwick original, a revelation and a wonderful song. The same sadly can't be said of "Lady Willpower." Stripped of the overwhelming drama of Gary Puckett's almost histrionic original it sounds rather plodding and resides as an unusual inclusion when there was so much else to choose from. A Nico song perhaps? Carly Simon's "When You Close Your Eyes" picks up the gothic threads that run through the album's eclectic proceedings, a lilting melancholy ballad effortlessly delivered.
The utter jaw dropping chill factor on the album is the taken up Tim Hardin's "Lenny's Tune" that gathers all the wistful sadness and longing implicit in the lyric and lays it, almost forensically, bare. Piano driven this lament to Lenny Bruce smoulders and flows in and out like a dying tide. One junkie's sorrow for a fellow addict, "I have lost a friend and I don't know why / But never again will we get together to die." Hardin himself later overdosed aged 39, his death eclipsed by the shooting of John Lennon.
"And why after every last shot was there always another?"
Morrissey's voice is heart-felt and ghosts the pathos and wrings out all the sadness implicit in the song. A sterling effort that alone would justify the price on the cover.
Proceedings close with an sweep of dynamic genius. Melanie's piece of outsider folk whimsy "Some Say I Got Devil" long entombed on the B side of "Brand New Key" it is turned into an industrial goth opera. Think Scott Walker in tandem with Ministry. If you are going to cover a song this how it ought to be done. Take it elsewhere and re-chisel it to within an inch of it's life. The perfect take and an inspiring conclusion
Reviews of this album have been somewhat muted in response to Morrissey's recent continued contrarian posturing, which is a tremendous shame. Quentin Crisp, that other great English contradiction once advised "Neither confirm nor deny" and Morrissey was for years an artful exponent of that edict. Ambiguity was part of his armour of attractiveness. These days he seems to have confirmed a little more than he ought and in the process has quite needlessly offended and alienated many of his fans. He states it is about freedom of speech and by all means say what you wish and believe what you will, but remember it is a two way street. Disagreement means dialogue, though certain of his aired opinions rest with little grace in the sentiments implicit in the collective sensibilities he has gathered together here.
And therein lies a contradiction of actuality and good grace that momentarily clouds the reception of an illuminating and rewarding achievement.