By Paul Schumann
The singer Morrissey is not an artist I thought I’d find myself listening to in the fall of 2017. An irreligious vegetarian who seems like a regular sadsack is not quite my cup of tea. Nevertheless, some dear friends encouraged me to explore his music on account of his unparalleled talent as a lyricist and I’m glad I did. A brief survey of my favorite songs is in order, including a handful from Morrissey’s old band The Smiths. The band covered themes of misery and frustration on the seamy edges of society that Morrissey would later continue to develop as a solo act.
The sins of the flesh are one of the more common topics in a Morrissey song. People irrationally follow their genitals in a foolish pursuit of happiness. The songs I prefer depend on clever wordplay to get their point across but be warned Morrissey doesn’t shy from including a few sordid details now and again.
What Difference Does It Make (1984) is a regular foot stomper about an illicit affair or perhaps unnatural urges.
The devil will find work for idle hands to do / I stole and I lied, and why? / Because you asked me to / But now you make me feel so ashamed.
Still Ill (1984) may be Morrissey at his most philosophical:
Does the body rule the mind / or does the mind rule the body? / I don’t know.
It seems he’s sympathetic to these sad souls because of the problem of human loneliness. Half A Person (1986) embodies this in simple catchy melancholy:
Sixteen, clumsy and shy – that’s the story of my life.
That’s How People Grow Up (2009) finds Morrissey at his most mature and direct:
I was wasting my life / praying for a love that never comes […] So yes there are things worse in life than / never being someone’s sweetie
In an age of isolated souls fixated on sex and desirous of intimacy, this is not bad advice at all. Curiously enough, while songs such as Hairdresser on Fire (1988) hint at same-sex attraction, Morrissey refuses to wed his name to such any of the popular labels of sexual identity so in vogue today. Whatever the song may mean, the phrase “repressed but remarkably dressed” is just too much fun for any Catholic with a sense of humor to pass up.
Political topics are addressed with a dour cynicism that anyone traversing today’s neoliberal political landscape should think more than justified. Take for example Irish Blood, English Heart (2004).
I’ve been dreaming of a time when / the English are sick to death of Labour and Tories / and spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell / and denounce this royal line / that still salute him and will salute him forever.
These lines tell you all you need to know. Death of a Disco Dancer (1987) addressed an Ireland in the midst of The Troubles:
Love, peace and harmony? / Oh, very nice / Very nice / Very nice / Very nice / But maybe in the next world.
While radical political movements rise and fall in the news, who can’t get a kick out of National Front Disco (1992) The whimsy of the title simultaneously mocks and mourns the existence of a fascist political party some rootless youth has drifted into supporting. The sympathy evident in the lyrics is not for some vulgar nationalist neopaganism, but recognizing there’s little to look forward to in such a sick society. What Catholic less than enamored of the fruits of liberal democracy could not sympathize with that? Catholics seeking a common life in a polity ordered towards our final end would certainly “like the day to come sooner.”
Taking a break from weightier topics, Morrissey may just decide to sing a ballad about some anonymous unfortunate, such as in First of the Gang to Die (2004) It’s a regular belter of a song with lyrics somehow both lighthearted and somber:
You have never been in love / until you’ve seen the sunlight thrown / over smashed human bone […] And he stole from the rich and the poor / and the not very rich and the very poor / and he stole all hearts away.
Then there’s Jack the Ripper (1992) which is nominally about the mythical serial killer, but also rather sensitive to the life of hardship and want that formed his victims:
Oh, you look so tired / Mouth slack and wide / Ill-housed and ill-advised / Your face is as mean as your life has been.
Now My Heart Is Full (1994) features lyrics referencing down-on- their-luck gangsters in one of Graham Greene’s lesser novels, Brighton Rock. The chorus is particularly poignant:
Now my heart is full / now my heart is full / and I just can’t explain / so I won’t even try to.
In There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (1986) some miserable youth complains about loneliness, but I can’t help but think of the ending of Brideshead Revisited as I hear the song title repeated in the outro.
What better herald of the times is there than Morrissey? The lives of the disenfranchised grow worse, society’s approach to sex becomes even more irrational, and politics continues to devolve into madness. Amidst this sadness, decadence, and chaos, Morrissey’s dour view of the modern age and rejection of sexual identitarianism gives his music has a surprising appeal. Now sing along with me in Everyday Is Like Sunday (1988)
Amageddon – come Armageddon! / come, Amageddon! Come!
Paul Schumann writes from upstate New York and wonders if the thunder is ever really gonna begin.