Unlike WorldbyStorm I used to be a huge embarrassment of a Smiths fan. What’s worse, when I was a fan of the Smiths I was an archetypical bookish teenager without the slightest hope of ever having a girlfriend. But that was okay, because I had Morrissey’s lyrics with which to explain away the misery of my thwarted sexuality. Then there was that NME journalist who suggested in the South Bank Show documentary, which aired just after the Smiths broke up, that Morrissey was directing his lyrics not like typical pop singers, at either a girl or a boy specifically, but at a third sex: not male, not female, but some asexual creature who finds it impossible to mix properly at parties.
Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that Morrissey eschewed gender in his songs because he hankered after fellas, where as I hungered after lasses. But that is why Morrissey was smarter than your average pop star. He knew that the feelings were the same for both genders and that there was no point alienating one in favour of the other. But as the years went by I left the Smiths lyrics, which had meant so much to me, behind, thinking that they were frozen in the amber of my teenage years.
When Morrissey continued to write songs and perform there seemed to be a sense that he hadn’t moved on, that his fan base remained those who were trying to keep alive that sense of what it used to be like to revel in your own identity when everyone around you just thought you were a nerdish fop.
But recently I’ve started listening to his two most recent albums again, and I realized that Morrissey has not really progressed as an artist. Rather he’s simply refined his art and is now writing songs which have a maturity that transcends the age of a listener. I say this because what made Morrissey’s lyrics unique was his ability to bring important subject matter into his pop songs with trivializing it. Now I realize that with the NME attack on Morrissey in the 90s we had a situation where his lyrics seem to approach a subject like national identity by skirting dangerously close to the rhetoric of BNP. The NME attack, however, reflected the times that were in it and the same publication was bending over backwards to embrace the inanity of Cool Britannia several years later.
But Morrissey was being subtler in his lyrics than journalists were willing to accept at the time. The same fine line seems to be skirted in I Will See You In Far Off Places from the 2006 album Ringleader Of The Tormentors. In it he seems to deal with Islamic terrorism (the music is a pastiche of Middle Eastern music) and the military actions of the United States Government.
Nobody knows what human life is.
Why we come, why we go.
So why then do I know
I will see you,
I will see you in far off places?
The heart knows why I grieve
And yes one day I will close my eyes forever
But I will see you
I will see you in far off places.
It’s so easy for us to sit together
But it’s so hard for our hearts to combine
Why? Why? Why? Why?
Destiny for some is to save lives
But destiny for some is to end lives
But there is no end
And I will see you in far off places.
If your god bestows protection upon you
And if the USA doesn’t bomb you
I believe I will see you somewhere safe
Looking to the camera, messing around
and pulling faces.
The song itself is just too ambiguous to let us know where Morrissey stands on the issues of the day, and this ambiguity is very finely judged. I wouldn’t say this is Morrissey’s best song, but it illustrates how, by avoiding explicitly stating something he’s allowing for the essence of what he would like to say speak to more people.
But what impressed me most were the songs that he chooses to cover and how within the obvious 3-4 minute pop format they deal with significant subjects. Redondo Beach below, for example starts off as a typical love song and through its repeated motif of ‘shock on their faces’ deals impressively with the topic of suicide. And then there’s the medley of one song that blends into another with Subway Train/Munich Air Disaster. Subway Train is a cover of a New York Dolls song, and Munich Air Disaster is fairly self explanatory. Of course, its no surprise that Morrissey is covering the New York Dolls as the young Mancunian was president of their fan club.
Anyway, below are the covers from Morrissey’s Live at the Earl Court album that I liked, as well the original version of Subway Train by the New York Dolls.