Previously on LGM – part one is here – we pretty much established that drafting a list of Morrissey’s finest moments is a foolhardy endeavour. We’re dealing with too much subjectivity; you’ll have your favourites, I’ll have mine, and we’ll all be for changing our mind by cocktail hour. Recently you would have spotted me at a Morrissey / Smiths club night – ageing pop kids in flowery shirts, sinister-looking vicar complete with tutu – and apart from the fact that you can’t dance to ‘Maladjusted’, what we learned is that there’s no consensus as to items treasured; the rush to the dance-floor, the dodgy singing – they came in constant waves. No matter the playlist variations from the DJ booth, whatever track from whichever era was greeted with whoops of enthusiasm from at least one corner of the room, as if we’d all been canvassed as to our record of most passion, every request subsequently spun.
But enough of my social life. Below, my top five. And then you can tell me how wrong I am by posting your personal favourites in the comments.
#5 – Ganglord (2006).
The whims of record labels aside, I can’t think of many artists who so wilfully hide powerful material in out-of-the-way places. Were I to have a track as strong as ‘Ganglord’, it would be a single. An album track at the very least. As it transpired, this was actually smuggled out when few were looking, third on the bill on the ‘The Youngest Was The Most Loved’ CD release.
Us vinyl fiends had to wait for Swords to hit the record stores before ‘Ganglord’ met turntable. The b-sides compilation covering the You Are The Quarry, Ringleader Of The Tormentors and Years Of Refusal period; that I’d argue Swords is a more satisfying endeavour than all three kind of reinforces notions of contrariness when it comes to what the Morrissey camp considers a musical aside.
To be fair, ‘Ganglord’ was a staple of his live sets at the time. And it’s an absolute bruiser; produced by Tony Visconti, written with Alain Whyte, it’s white as black (and vice versa), kicking off in a contusion of growling menace across which unfurls a keyboard motif of delicate proportions, perfectly accentuating the contrast between the two.
And then the vocal. In part one of this top ten I mentioned the fascination inherent to how the solo career has evolved through tone; “a voice that’s grown into its baritone carapace”. Morrissey’s vocal positioning within this song is a fine example of how both sound and lyrical contexts have matured over the years. The delivery leaves no question as to who’s in charge, the words framed by double, triple meaning, so that by the frenzied repeat of his Save me cry, the listener feels as if they’ve been pummelled into submission.
#4 – ‘Mountjoy’ (2014).
And having written about a certain song whilst reviewing World Peace Is None Of Your Business a few month back:
You know that moment when but a simple listen becomes something so much more? Song as enfolding construct, coiling itself tightly around perception, never letting go? Well, that. Stripped percussion, no bass, no chorus. Momentum crafted by acoustic guitar, the electric present to provide the shards, the odd angles. There are parallels with the mighty ‘The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils’ here, but where-as that leaves Southpaw Grammar feeling unbalanced (it’s too pneumatic for its own good), the sensibilities of ‘Mountjoy’ underpin the entire album. It pummels with its starkness. Its sculpted edges. The manner by which, four minutes in exactly, the mournful cello adds just the right shade of emphasis. A lament of sorts (“A swagger hides the fear in here. By this rule we breathe”), perfectly lit; when Morrissey sings “The only thing that makes me cry is when I see the sky”, it’s delivered with impunity.
And having had the opportunity to live with this a little longer, I’ll have to admit that I’m more in love with this song than ever. The entire album’s a belter – ‘Staircase At The University’ being another song that just missed out on a top ten feature – but ‘Mountjoy; oh my. There’s an equilibrium to affairs; a meditation upon life and love and all that comes with it, but delivered with an obliqueness that sits just right, working with the instrumentation to pluck mournful proclivity from the bouquet. It is, quite simply, beautiful.
#3 – Now My Heart Is Full (1994).
From (of course) Vauxhall And I, and the mechanics of devotion; Morrissey as literary creature. Songs sculpted by narrative inflexion. Narratives populated by caricature, such delicious grotesques. Loafing oafs in all-night chemists. Just some rain-coated lovers’ puny brothers – these are players from Beckett, not denizens of disposable, three minute slices of pop.
‘Now My Heart Is Full’ is a deeply engaging method of kicking off an album. There’s an air of forebodement from the opening chords onwards – There’s gonna be some trouble, a whole house will need rebuilding – yet amid the strands of imagery these sinister implications are never overplayed. Instead, the lyrics point to a thematic coherence that sets the tone of the entire album; lines suggestive of grainy English cinema, full of dark streets and shadows. Hence the literary / cinematic aspect, the creation of a slightly altered reality where obscure actors and gangster protagonists of Brighton Rock stalk each verse. There’s also a fragility to all this, tendrils of tenderness echoed in Boz Boorer’s delicious fretwork. The end result is something evocative, enigmatic, even sultry. I genuinely can’t think of a more effective, more perfect opening.
#2 – Maladjusted (1997).
Visceral, acerbic, angular. From where the guitars growl and scowl, tooled-up and echoing blindly along streets on which they’re not exactly welcome. There’s no warm embrace to be had. Devoid of the trademark empathetic decorations, this is a track that skulks and flounces. It loiters at the bridgehead of its parent album, apart – as if in splendid isolation… or shunned through notions of its own self importance.
And then the words. If in musical construction it’s closest to ‘The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils’, then in lyrical tone ‘Maladjusted’ represents some warped reflection of ‘Piccadilly Palare’. The cloak and dagger configuration of phrase and meaning are as much an aspect of Morrissey’s cultivated persona as the ripping of shirt before each encore, or the brief, barbed pronouncements upon all and sundry, but here the precision behind the words strikes off in a somewhat skewed direction, simultaneously conjuring both homo-eroticism and the instinctive mundanity of a social realist agenda. Or in other words, for every Keith Waterhouse or Ken Loach pose there’s a Quentin Crisp or even a Leigh Bowery counterpoint lurking within the same stanza.
And oh my, what words. Loot wine, be mine, and then let’s stay out for the night. Or: Keep thief hours, with someone like you. Or: You stalk the house in a low-cut blouse. Don’t tell me you’ve never stalked the house in a low-cut blouse; it’s the exploitation of image with maximum bite, unencumbered by the default feints and retracing-of-steps of the whole verse / chorus / verse routine.
Take, for example, the highly deliberate appropriation of Stevenage sprawl within the narrative. This isn’t simply a location that neatly scans; by deploying the sense of cul-de-sac anti-place – then vividly contrasting it with the harsh glare of big city bright lights, he’s both holding up a mirror to mainstream English aspiration (and barely concealing his disdain), and subverting the youthful attraction to the cold, cynical, breathtaking city. A city we all know too well, where-ever its real life geography.
‘Maladjusted’ isn’t particularly straight-forward to write about. You don’t so much listen to this record as experience it, catch fleeting glimpses of yourself embedded within the narrative. Somehow we’re all extras in this drama, shadows lurking against the scenery with a cigarette clamped between our lips and attention focused towards some mid-distance.
#1 – Speedway (1994).
“Devious, truculent and unreliable”, declared the High Court Judge, identifying certain traits of character that undermined the integrity of Morrissey’s evidence. Mike Joyce won the case, a redistribution of Smiths royalties that need not concern us here – for you know what? I’m deeply enamoured with Steven Patrick’s devious and truculent unreliability. It’s one of the aspects that elevates his catalogue to such overwhelming levels of enticement – it’s not enough that his lyrics are clever and poetic, or that both Boorer and Whyte’s compositions so elegantly resonate against the sentiment; it’s how that sentiment is positioned that implicitly attracts. The agility behind each strand of wordplay, each filament of evocation. Tracks that celebrate their inherent deviousness, their truculence, the unreliable narration.
And nowhere will you find this judicial statement exemplified more convincingly than on ‘Speedway’, Vauxhall And I’s immense, monumental dénouement. A motorcycle revs, seguing into the guitar’s intimate sweep – chords that draw you forward, hints of the menacing, the haunting. And then the vocal: All of the rumours keeping me grounded. I never said, I never said that they were completely unfounded. There are parallels with the album’s initial track here; an opening line built upon the enigmatic, the intriguing.
And perhaps that’s the point with ‘Speedway’; a delicious record that continually ramps up the momentum, hurtling (through both music and words) towards its disturbing peak:
I could have mentioned your name.
I could have dragged you in,
Guilt by implication.
By association, I’ve always been true to you.
In my own strange way, I’ve always been true to you.
In my own sick way, I’ll always stay true to you.
A suggestion of confession, of a highly deliberate positioning of words against the grinding gears of instrumentation. This is a song that wraps you up in its sly intensity, seamed with all that makes Morrissey such a button presser. This is the only way Vauxhall And I could have climaxed – with a bang, one huge fucking wow.