9 Jun 2019

Morrissey's California Son

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 9 June 2019

The British singer Morrissey is not always Mr Sad; he can occasionally – very occasionally – deliver smiley-faced pop. William Dart listens to his new album of covers California Son.

Morrissey - California Son, Cover Imge

Morrissey - California Son, Cover Imge Photo: BMG

Jimmy Radcliffe’s 'The Forgotten Man' is one of the great melodramatic soul-ripping ballads of 1962.

Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David a few years before Dionne Warwick came long to add cream ‘n’ class to their wily songcraft.

This is one of 15 songs that Morrissey owned up to as being influential on his own music.

Back in 2003, on an album in the series Under the Influence, the English singer presented the songs, one after another, laid out in a sort of CD confessional. From the Sundown Playboys making a Cajun party of 'Saturday Night Special' to the late German countertenor Klaus Nomi impersonating one of the great queens of the Baroque – Purcell’s Dido, abdicating from love and life on a funeral pyre.

Morrissey has mustered together quite a parade of downers on this album, and he justifies why he chose them in a sharply written eight-page essay.

Predictably political, he reminds us that Klaus Nomi was an early bull’s eye for the AIDS machine gun, but he even sniffs out tragedy when English singer Diana Dors complains of having 'So Little Time' in an obscure 1966 single.

"The voice teeters with a knowing smile", Morrissey suggests with the purple streaming from his pen, "but the heart is on the gravel as she tells us so much more than what she literally says, a double-tier of sexual urgency".

Pulling this Morrissey album out of the stacks a few weeks ago has increased my admiration for the man’s curatorial nous and maybe this 2003 release played some part in his being chosen to curate London’s Meltdown Festival in the following year. Which he did, setting up a roster of artists from Sparks, Loudon Wainwright, Jane Birkin and Nancy Sinatra to Lypsinka, the celebrated American lip-synching drag artist who is one dynamic performer, as I can personally vouch for, having caught one of her shows in LA back in the 80s.

On the orchestral side, in a concert at the Southbank’s Festival Hall, Morrissey set up Gorecki’s 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' with Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny.

But then Morrissey himself made his name with sorrowful songs …  in fact, downright depressing songs, both with his group, The Smiths and, later, as a solo artist.

Indeed, there’s a lot of them and 'You have killed me', from his 2006 album Ringleader of the Tormentors is just one.  Launched with a nudging reference to the murdered gay Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Morrissey’s last album, 2017’s Low in High School was a partial return to form after the extremely disappointing ramble of his previous outing, World Peace is none of your business.

The intervening three years had been well spent in terms of focusing his songwriting. But there’s still a doomy cloud hanging over its dozen songs, with titles such as 'I bury the living', 'Home is a Question Mark', and 'I wish you lonely'.

One of the most convincing numbers — and certainly the most subtle — is 'Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On the Stage'.

As a song, it’s not so much over-written, as over-elaborated. I can’t help thinking that there’s a chic bossa nova lurking somewhere in it, smothered by all the busy instrumental brouhaha that surrounds it.

But there is a revelation of sorts at the end of its four minutes. Is Jacky a lonely thespian who only comes alive in front of her fans, or is she in fact the singer himself?

And might there be wider issues as well? Right at the end, during the repeated calls for exit, might Morrissey have possibly had Brexit on his mind?

Now, in his latest album, California Son, Morrissey has put down his own pen, and turned to the songs of others, songs of his youth: songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Buffy Sainte-Marie. And more: ballads by more esoteric names such as Melanie Safka and Tim Hardin. He even pushes doom and gloom firmly to the side and allows himself a bit of a campy romp with Laura Nyro’s 'Wedding Bell Blues'.

When the 5th Dimension sang this back in 1969, the song’s evasive Bill was earmarked for Marilyn McCoo and she even wore a rather cute bridal veil in the video to prove it.

But half a century on, times have changed and girls don’t automatically get the boy. And so Morrissey can now plead for matrimonial bliss with Bill, while Billie Joe Armstrong, from the band Green Day, helps out with some best man backing vocals.  

One could argue that Morrissey is touching on sexual politics in this song, as he’s known for taking very public stands on a range of causes and issues.

But some of the tracks on California Son are apolitical in in the purest pop tradition. Songs like 'Lady Willpower', first sung by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, or Roy Orbison’s 'It’s Over'.  

Others have their politics built into them, including a handful from Bob Dylan and other folkie protest singers back in the 60s. And if these songs are dear to your heart, then you may be in for a shock.

When Buffy Sainte-Marie sang her 'Suffer the Little Children' in 1969, it was her and guitar, with jittery, almost schizoid jolts of texture and rhythm, and a voice that could freeze blood for a worthy cause.

Morrissey takes 'Suffer the Little Children' and paints it up with a six-inch brush. What was originally an intimate, personal outpouring becomes something of a Broadway extravaganza.

On its own terms, for fans of mannerist excess, it’s quite a trip, from thundering war dance to full-on orchestral splendor, including horns waiting to be picked up for a Mahlerian adventure.

Incident proliferates as the song progresses and, right at the end, perhaps there’s a little bit of Great White Way optimism when that final minor chord gently shudders into the major.

You probably need to take a bit of breath after that consciousness-rattling three-and-a-half minutes.

And some might think that irredeemable damage has been inflicted on a song that doesn’t deserve it.  

Well, it’s not the only one to be wrenched out of its comfort zone.

As a devout fan of Burt Bacharach, I cannot bear to point you to Morrissey’s take on 'Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets', a brassy forgettable affair, which even commits the cardinal sin of tweaking the song’s harmonies.

Some might have reservations, too, when Morrissey takes on 'Don’t interrupt the sorrow' from one of Joni Mitchell’s finest albums, The Hissing of Summer Lawns – a song that’s cryptic even by Mitchell’s own standards.

As it happens, Morrissey has long been an admirer of the woman who gave us 'Both Sides Now' and 'You Turn me on, I’m a Radio'.

Back in 1994 someone at Reprise Records had the smart idea of bringing the pair together in front of microphones to discuss the Canadian singer’s music. Not only did Morrissey reveal himself as an awestruck fan, but The Hissing of Summer Lawns was the album that converted him.

The fact that Mitchell’s 'Don’t interrupt the sorrow' is very much a woman’s song may have been just what drew Morrissey to it. The line “Anima rising, Queen of Queens” does raise an eyebrow.

Back in 1975 the song was, in the words of its writer, part of a project that had been conceived graphically, musically, lyrically and accidentally as a whole. And the Summer Lawns album certainly sounded like that with her supple vocals floating over one of her most homogenous backing bands.

Not so with Morrissey, who sets up a jazzy backdrop, so supper-club that you wouldn’t be surprised to hear glasses clinking.

And it is very much a backdrop for his well-practised croon. But there is one curiosity here, which I suspect Joni Mitchell herself would appreciate: prominent amongst the backing musicians is saxophonist Tom Scott who was an integral part of Mitchell’s sound in her 1974 Miles of Aisles album.

History may not be able to be re-written, but you can’t help wishing that he had been in the line-up on The Hissing of Summer Lawns as well.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'The Forgotten Man' (Bacharach, David) – Jimmy Radcliffe
Under the Influence: Morrissey

'Death (a version of ‘When I am laid in earth’)' (Purcell) – Klaus Nomi
Under the Influence: Morrissey

'So Little Time' (Mason, Reed) – Diana Dors
Under the Influence: Morrissey

'You Have Killed Me' (Morrissey, Tobias) – Morrissey
Ringleader of the Tormentors

'Jacky’s Only Happy when She’s Up on Stage' (Morrissey, Boorer) – Morrissey
Low in High School

'Wedding Bell Blues' (Nyro) – Morrissey
California Son

'Suffer the Little Children' (Sainte-Marie) – Buffy Sainte-Marie

'Suffer the Little Children' (Sainte-Marie) – Morrissey
California Son

'(conversation)' (-) – Joni Mitchell, Morrissey
Words & Music: Joni Mitchell & Morrissey

'Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow' (Mitchell) – Morrissey
California Son