Since his days with the Smiths, the warbling baritone crooner and shrilly irritable lyricist Morrissey has found heart and humor in the repetition of his central (now, right-winged) talking points. It could be a famed mix of sexual deprivation and longing, and the isolation that comes with placing oneself on the shelf. It could be his anti-establishment rants against Queen, country (pick one), meat eaters and leather wearers. Writing from the standpoint of the wise and witty curmudgeon — one of the pre-Brexit UK’s best, too — Morrissey could stare down from his bully pulpit, take aim, and come across as a moral authority, because he had a sniper’s sure-shot vision.
What, then, with his new “California Son” album, could the king of Generation Whine bring to its covers of rare protest songs and gender-switching relationship kitsch from the 1960s and ’70s? Especially considering how much of a mess he’s made of the last several years of record label snafus, bland albums, health problems, gig cancellations and extremist right-wing pin-wearing?
Why, guts, guile and barely controllable emotion. Morrissey hasn’t sounded this passionately committed to song — any song — since 2004’s “You Are the Quarry.”
For a guy who rarely records other artists’ work, Morrissey truly sinks his teeth into this past specific moment (loosely between 1964 and 1972) in much the same way Quentin Tarantino is looking to the same time period, and with a similar nod to Hollywood’s Hills. The time-traveling “California Son” brings weird brio, rich melodramatics and full-blooded vigor, all possibly commenting on the present, with a wink.
How better to explain Moz’s lustrous Laura Nyro-written “Wedding Bell Blues,” its choir of carousels — sung in part by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong — and its “Bill, I love you so / I always will” lyrics? Is Morrissey tipping his hat to the approval of same-sex marriage (in his 2013 book, “Autobiography,” he acknowledges sexual relationships with men and women), or just hewing toward camp, as the tune, like the entire album,is epically overproduced by Joe Chiccarelli?
A similar digital sheen is layered over the spaced-out chamber-glam of “Morning Starship” (from Pennsylvania glitter rocker Jobriath), a chintzy syn-brassy take on the insistently ascending AM radio staple “Lady Willpower” (Gary Puckett & the Union Gap!!), and a plush-ly purple “It’s Over” from Roy Orbison. Burt Bacharach’s Brazilian-inspired, two-octave “Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets” doesn’t have the same cosmopolitan poperatic sass for Moz as it did Dionne Warwick. Then again, little does.
These pop songs, classic or not (Jobriath all but died in obscurity), are given impactful, clarion-clear renditions from Morrissey either in a fit of pique or the throes of l’amour.
What wind up as more interesting then, in a lyrical, political sense, even when they don’t exactly work, is Morrissey’s choice of socially conscious tracks, especially when these anthems are pushed up against his own pointed (and not always popular) personal rhetoric.
Take his version of Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Written about the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and showing the author’s hand in solidarity with black America and the whole of the civil rights movement, the song has Dylan pointing fingers at rich, white bosses everywhere for creating a smoke screen with the assassination. Morrissey’s glossy, Celtic take is certainly ferocious, and even cutting, if not a bit cold and distant. But given his recent white nationalist lean, it seems off-the-rails and an odd choice. So, too, is Melanie’s fragile feminist anthem “Some Say (I Got Devil),” an icily alluring thing for Morrissey to make his own. His line reading of “All the things that I have seen / Qualify me for a part in your dream” are fairly dramatic and dedicated to the cause, even if the arrangement is wonky.
Tim Hardin’s “Lenny’s Tune” is an ode to that late folk songwriter’s pal and controversial comic Lenny Bruce, and therefore speaks indirectly to the nature of censorship. Yet this interestingly haunting cover misses what it means to truly feel an absent friend’s loss. Thankfully, Morrissey pull together lyrical intent and his own vocal prowess up by the bootstraps for Phil Ochs’ “Days of Decisions.” Speaking to “the mobs of anger roamin’ the street / From the rooftops they are aimin’ at the police on the beat,” Moz and Ochs could be talking about last night’s news. Or tonight’s, or tomorrow’s.
Committing to kitschy ’60s bliss as much as that era’s real or imagined war zones allows Morrissey and “California Son” a chance to find a (literal) voice in a way he hasn’t in ages. It would just be an even greater feat if Morrissey could make more of its finer musical moments jibe with his personal vibes.