MORRISSEY Maladjusted (Island)

When I were a lad the arrival of a new Morrissey album was an event. These days, well, they’re just like buses, aren’t they? (A double-length retrospective of his EMI years is due any day now). So along comes "Maladjusted", his sixth solo studio album, and sporting the latest in a long line of nostalgia-fest record labels - where "Southpaw Grammar" (released on RCA) had the same lurid orange livery as the young Steven Patrick’s Lou Reed and Bowie albums, being on the Island workforce means "Maladjusted" wears the same smart palm tree logo as his Roxy Music singles (although almost definitely not his Bob Marley records). Extra points for the usual (for Morrissey albums, if not anyone else’s) heavy vinyl pressing too.

Enough of the cosmetics (although I should note that the sleeve photo looks unnervingly like a Vic ‘n’ Bob caricature of Mozzer, or is his head really that big?), what of the music? Opening with an Anthony Newley sample from the film "Cockleshell Heroes", the title track shudders into the sort of sludge rock epic that most of "Southpaw Grammar" wished it was, the key improvements being a lack of excess length, no drum solos and lyrics that are actually worth reading/listening to, lots of dark stuff about "the Fulham road lights" and "working girls like me". The single "Alma Matters" follows, surely his best since the criminally underrated "Boxers" (not saying much, given the quality of what’s gone between the two). Other highlights include the unlikely excursions into the world of big(ish) balladry in the form of the rather good "Trouble Loves Me" (surely destined to become the man’s "My Way") and the quite touching, gentle and emotional "He Cried" and "Wide To Receive" ("I don’t get along with myself/And I’m not too keen on anyone else") and the bouncy janglings of "Ammunition" and "Satan Rejected My Soul" (ho ho).

"Maladjusted" is in no way a perfect work - the likes of "Roy’s Keen" (a song about a window cleaner, would you believe) and the dubious "Ambitious Outsiders" see to that - but given what he’s foisted on us in recent years it must surely mark some kind of minor rebirth. Certainly there’s a fragility to some of it that rarely surfaces, but when it does usually features in his best work ("Vauxhall And I" and "Kill Uncle", in my opinion). It’ll hardly win him legions of new converts, but when he sings lines like "Maladjusted, maladjusted/Never to be trusted" you can almost hear the grin in his voice.

MORRISSEY You Are The Quarry (Attack)

Morrissey’s first album after a career break of Blue Nile proportions arrives with a sticker-ful of laudatory quotes, and whilst it’s unquestionably his finest work in a decade that’s more a comment on the underwhelming “Southpaw Grammar” and “Maladjusted” than a pointer to excellence within. Heavily redolent of his 1992 effort “Your Arsenal”, another Morrissey album whose critical acclaim has always puzzled me, producer Jerry Finn (Blink-182, Sum 41, Green Day) provides a crisp, muscular, almost pugilistic soundtrack that, consciously or unconsciously, echoes the late Mick Ronson’s work on the aforementioned.

What scuppers the album for me, though, is its schizophrenic lyrical inconsistencies. On the opening track, “America Is Not The World” the Los Angeles-resident Morrissey lambastes his current home country (“where the President is never black, female or gay” – one wonders whether he would prefer to be living under Margaret Thatcher or Robert Mugabe), yet “Irish Blood, English Heart” and “Come Back To Camden” find him waxing nostalgic for the England he abandoned. Equally, compare “No regime can buy or sell me” on “Irish Blood, English Heart” with “There’s a cash-register ringing and it weighs so heavy on my back” on “You Know I Couldn’t Last”. It might seem paradoxical to accuse a Morrissey album of wallowing in self-pity, but throughout The Smiths’ matchless back catalogue and the best of his solo work the misery he unflinchingly exposed was universal. Here it’s all “Me! Me! Me!”, almost to the point of being tediously autobiographical. Really, who’s going to waste a drop of empathy on the man who moans, on the never-ending “You Know I Couldn’t Last”, about “CDs and t-shirts and promos and God knows…the gold discs creep up and mug you/With evil legal eagles…Accountants rampant…the Northern leeches”? And when during “Let Me Kiss You” he wails, “I’ve zig-zagged all over America/And I cannot find a safety haven” – well, bless!

On the plus side, he hasn’t lost his knack for an arresting title – e.g. “I Have Forgiven Jesus”, “The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores”, “All The Lazy Dykes” – even if he can no longer fashion the songs they deserve. And at its best – “First Of The Gang To Die”, a jolly relocation of “City Of God” to the Mancunian badlands – “You Are The Quarry” is passable enough. But surely only Morrissey would have the chutzpah to unleash his big rock star whinge album after seven years of inactivity.

MORRISSEY/THE DEAD 60S Guild Hall, Preston 10 September 2004

Despite the reservations expressed elsewhere regarding the quality of his recent work, I couldn’t resist the pull of the legend when I stumbled upon a source of tickets for this apparently long sold-out show, the final date in a short world tour of the North-West. Comparisons would be inevitable with my sole previous near-Morrissey experience – 7 October 1991, Gloucester Leisure Centre – an astonishing crush of an evening that had been undoubtedly helped by the fact that, in those pre-Smiths songbook resurrection days, the man’s canon only extended to two fair-to-good albums and a slew of wonderful singles.

But first, The Dead 60s, a Liverpudlian beat combo, who, I think it would be reasonable to surmise, have heard “London Calling” a few times. “The Specials”, too, I’d wager. (The Clash and Specials comparisons become yet more apposite when they deploy the lyrics “A message to you” and “Rock man grooves”). They play a fusion of punk, dub and ska – all depth charge bass and burping organ, a vocalist who evokes favourable comparison with the late, lamented Mr Strummer on occasion – but with the crisp sheen of the now about it, something that even “London Calling” can’t really claim to possess at this distance. Perhaps the songs aren’t all there yet, but given time – their debut album is scheduled for a 2005 release – they could be.

After an interval spiked with the music of Jobriath (rock’s first openly gay star, who released two albums that out-glammed Bowie in the mid 70s and died of an AIDS-related illness in 1983, soon to be the subject of a Morrissey-compiled retrospective) and Nancy Sinatra (modestly, a cover of Moz’s own “ Let Me Kiss You” from a forthcoming album, Sanctuary again furiously milking their bequiffed new signing in a manner that I suspect they won’t be repeating with The Blue Nile), the house lights darken and the hall is filled with a lengthy monologue delivered in a scouse accent that later research reveals to be that of Margi Clarke, the piece itself being “Imperfect List” by Big Hard Excellent Fish (a Pete Wylie project). Being a lengthy list of what constituted badness at the time of its circa 1990 release (“Macho dickhead…Bonnie Langford…Stock Aitken & Waterman…The Sun newspaper…the Tory invention of the non-working class…the breakdown of the NHS”) it couldn’t be more appropriate to the here and now. Finally, after about five minutes of this, the huge illuminated ’68 comeback Morrissey sign at the back of the stage is revealed, the boy and his heavily augmented quintet stride on, to predictable hysteria, and, rather less predictably, the company saw and grind into the revolving riff of “How Soon Is Now?”, embellished with Morrissey’s inimitable hot microphone wire moves and a progtastic gongstruck ending.

Having established himself as the best Smiths tribute act in Christendom, Steven fast forwards 20 years to “First Of The Gang To Die”, one of the more memorable moments on “You Are The Quarry”, greeted with, if anything, even more fist-pumping rapture from the floor. And so the evening progresses, with rather more new material than some of the old guard might have welcomed, a tantalising sprinkling of Smiths songs (“Shakespeare’s Sister”, a lumbering but still-wondrous “Rubber Ring”) and the occasional delve into the man’s own solo back catalogue (“November Spawned A Monster”, with Mary Margaret O’Hara’s vocal spasms replaced by a snake-charming clarinet, a majestic “Now My Heart Is Full”). Playing the showbiz personality to the hilt, Morrissey reminisced about his first visit to the Guild Hall, 31 years earlier (“Do you remember when Roxy Music were interesting?”), took every opportunity to disparage his new album with the title “A Fate Worse Than Life”, pressed the flesh with the outstretched arms of the moshpit, dispatched shirt after sweaty shirt into the crowd and behaved gracefully with the few hardy stagedivers able to vault the heavy security. And any concert that closes with “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, simply one of the best songs ever written must be in possession of at least some claim to greatness.

But, fabulous as it was to finally see Smiths songs performed by a Smith, compared to my previous Morrissey gig 13 years before, it seemed as though something was lacking. Perhaps it’s too soon for me to welcome “You Know I Couldn’t Last” as an acceptable substitute for “Disappointed”, or view “Irish Blood, English Heart” with the same affection as I do “Suedehead” or “Interesting Drug”, for example. Nevertheless, Morrissey played my adopted hometown, and my gratitude for that is sufficient to render any such criticism academic.

MORRISSEY Live At Earls Court (Attack)

Morrissey’s second live album (what no comically self-deprecating title?) finds him tottering dangerously on the precipice of overexposure. Recent months have also seen the release of the “Who Put The ‘M’ In Manchester” DVD and a deluxe double disc edition of his frankly lukewarm comeback platter “You Are The Quarry”. At least (or unfortunately) he doesn’t quite have the gall to parade “Paint A Vulgar Picture” this time around.

Recorded, according to the cover blurb, live at Earls Court (ah, now it’s all coming together!) in London on the 18th of December 2004 in front of 17,183 people, the bequiffed Mancunian superhero plays a fairly significantly nipped, tucked and tweaked version of the set I saw in Preston three months earlier. Although you don’t get the monster red “’68 Comeback Special” Morrissey sign you do get pictures of the boys in the band cheekily pressganged into Jobriath t-shirts (he being rock’s first openly gay non-star, recently the subject of a Moz-curated compilation).

A crushingly confident “How Soon Is Now?” opens proceedings, this 20-year old song seemingly permanently trapped in unhappy adolescence. It’s not The Smiths, of course, but until Johnny Marr & The Healers crack open “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” it’ll have to do. “First Of The Gang To Die” drags proceedings into the present tense, a clean, crackling ode to a new breed of ghetto playboy, part “Brighton Rock”, half “City Of God”. The setlist meanders through a familiar and uneven mix of tepid new material and Smiths classics, with only “November Spawned A Monster” and “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” thrown in to represent his first decade of solo activity. He’s not above the odd revisionist touch, though: a flamenco-flavoured “Bigmouth Strikes Again” finds Joan Of Arc’s iPod, rather than her Walkman, imperilled by the rising flames.

More mystifyingly, he includes a cover of “Redondo Beach”, perhaps an attempt to seek reggae’s forgiveness after legendarily dismissing it as vile during an 80s NME interview (his current choice of reactivated vanity record label, Attack, was once a reggae imprint). Reasoning aside, it’s a pallid, air-conditioned coach trip around the sights and delights of Patti Smith’s original. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” seems slightly robotic here, bereft of the swooning elegance of the Smiths original, and even the occasional pearly between-song pronouncements (e.g. “It’s either this or prison”) seem lacking, somehow. “I Have Forgiven Jesus” is notably more savage and clawing that the album version, not that is does much to rehabilitate another unremarkable recent Morrissey song, and “You Know I Couldn’t Last”, at seven seemingly endless minutes, is even more painfully distended than the “You Are The Quarry” take. The set stumbles to a close with a foreshortened “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”, after which our hero pleads “Don’t forget me!”. Sigh.

“Live At Earls Court” is an efficient, effective document of the 2004-model live Morrissey experience, as satisfactory or otherwise as you found it in the flesh. Dare we ask for more?

MORRISSEY Years Of Refusal (Polydor) 

I'm probably not best placed to comment, what with feeling that the near-universally derided "Kill Uncle" is the solo Morrissey's artistic high watermark, but I'm still not impressed with his 21st century critical and commercial resurgence, albums such as this one, his ninth, doing nothing to alter that view.

Behind its clever titles there's nothing but generic curmudgeonly lyrics and music that's, at best, workmanlike, these dozen songs being an unvarying drudge to get through. The wit that sparkled during his Smiths and early burglary years is absent, and guest appearances by Jeff Beck and Mark Isham do nothing to lighten the murk. The ambient wash that closes "You Were Good In Your Time" is a nice touch, but naggingly familiar from "Seasick, Yet Still Docked" released 17 years earlier. The sleeve carries a Ziggy-esque instruction to "Play very loud", but a brash, clattering modern production precludes that pleasure. Morrissey even jumbles up his beloved vintage record label iconography on an album that has Polydor logos and a Decca catalogue number.

As one song here goes, "You were good in your time" but, as another song not here goes, "It says nothing to me about my life". Tanned, content and successful as he may be, this Morrissey isn't the one for me, fatty.

MORRISSEY Bona Drag (Major Minor) 

“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!

Re-evaluate the songs

Double-pack with a photograph

Extra track (and a tacky badge)

Best of! Most of!

Satiate the need

Slip them into different sleeves!

Buy both and feel deceived”

Thus sang Morrissey on “Paint A Vulgar Picture”, from The Smiths’ swansong album “Strangeways, Here We Come”. It was a bit rich even then, given that the band had already begun to gouge and cannibalise their own catalogue even before their dissolution, a practice that has seen no let-up in the singer’s solo career. Behold, then, the 20th anniversary edition of “Bona Drag”, a compilation of single sides originally issued in 1990. The tweakage executed here includes new artwork! (actually the old artwork, a still from the “November Spawned A Monster” video, with Morrissey’s shirt returned to its original colour, although the remainder of the photos in the packaging are debuting here) A new cover font! Altered lyrics on “Piccadilly Palare”! Some new crossfades! The removal of “Suedehead”’s fade-in! An edited “Ouija Board, Ouija Board”! Six bonus tracks! A huge poster of the artist to drool over! Another dead label resurrected as a Morrissey vanity imprint! (In this instance it’s Major Minor, late 60s home to the likes of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg and Tommy James and the Shondells.)

What the above blatant opportunism can’t diminish, however, is the fact that, for me, “Bona Drag” is one of Morrissey’s finest albums, vying for the top title with “Vauxhall And I” and the almost universally unloved “Kill Uncle”. The magnificent “Interesting Drug” harks back to a long-forgotten time when he wrote about subjects other than himself. Crisp and withering, with its gorgeous Kirsty MacColl backing vocals and barbed politics this attack on apathy is possibly the best Billy Bragg song Billy Bragg didn’t write. Mary Margaret O’Hara’s spasmodic, flailing “additional voice” on “November Spawned A Monster” is the perfect deployment of her weird genius , and “Will Never Marry” is still as swoonsome as its string arrangement. “Hairdresser On Fire” is everything his music isn’t nowadays; funny, poignant and dizzyingly tuneful. The faded, forlorn Englishness of “Everyday Is Like Sunday” should’ve seen Morrissey the lyricist celebrated alongside Ray Davies and Paul Weller; why ever didn’t it happen? Even in the denuded form presented here “Suedehead” is as arrestingly strange and brilliant as ever, his use of the word telephone as a verb sounding archaic nowadays. “Disappointed” is a somewhat blatant rip-off of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” musically, right down to the churning, cyclical guitar sound, redeemed by Moz’s self-lacerating humour. Whilst I wouldn’t argue that every single from the 1988-1990 period surveyed was a classic, even those that aren’t – “The Last Of The Famous International Playboys”, “Piccadilly Palare”, “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” – have a wonky charm totally absent from his work in this millennium.  

The bonus tracks are a bit problematic, truth be told. They teeter perilously close to parody, and one – a demo version of “Please Help The Cause Against Loneliness” – crashes clumsily over the line. A long mix of “Let The Right One Slip In” isn’t even era-appropriate; although the packaging coyly omits dates (and also, disappointingly, the printed lyrics found on the original) Mick Ronson’s production hand posits it as an outtake from the sessions for 1992’s “Your Arsenal”. “Lifeguard On Duty” and, in particular, “The Bed Took Fire” aren’t without their mordant charms, though.

Is this 20th anniversary edition a better, more definitive “Bona Drag” than the original? Well, the album is already etched into many fans’ subconscious in its former form, and diluting it with superfluous extra tracks and tweaked artwork doesn’t necessarily make a great album automatically better. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to finally own “Bona Drag”, and spreading the original tracklisting over three sides has given it a little more sonic oomph. It sounds creditable enough, although a bit boom ‘n’ ting and susceptible to fuzziness in places.