Who the Fuck Listens to This: Morrissey – California Son

So Morrissey, yeah? He almost never comes up around here 1, and that’s because I have carefully arranged my life so that I basically never think about him.

Nevertheless, he intrudes occasionally upon my thoughts, and here he is now, having made a record of other people’s songs for….a reason that probably only makes sense to him. If there even is a reason, as there may not be (about which see below).

I’m not going to overburden this here piece with my opinion of Morrissey, although here’s a footnote 2 if you don’t know it, because this really isn’t about my opinion of Morrissey, but rather about one of the most weirdly-miscalculated and unpredictable people “working” in music today, and his weird decision to make a covers album.

Covers albums have become something of a staple here in WTFLTT-land, having come up several times previously 3, and this one seemed like such a self-lighting conflagration that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to actually hear it.

See, because whatever else Morrissey has done and has been doing, he has managed to spend the last couple of years completely alienating his extant fanbase 4. That’s why he’s gone over into WTFLTT-dom: who is still around and loyal to/curious enough about Morrissey to listen to this record of covers?

Morrissey himself appears to be positioning the material, and the record itself, as its own commentary on his uh….evolving public image. He did no real press for it (a couple of tv appearances where he plays songs from the record notwithstanding), and has yet to comment much on it as itself. The songs include some AM fluff, a Bob Dylan song that makes a clever, nuanced point that is almost certainly turned on its head, and a couple of genuinely-good songs that are turned into weird karaoke manglings. But lyrically, this is all stuff that clearly influenced Morrissey, or that Morrissey has genuine affection for, even if it seems like the only reason he’s recording it is to play some dumb, tiresome “see what I’m doing here?” game.

But of course, that’s sort of been Morrissey’s whole thing the whole time. Morrissey is, despite being a thoroughly reprehensible person with some awful political leanings, not an idiot, and has spent as much of his music-creating career playing with his public image as not, which makes this part and parcel of his whole thing anyway. He’s still doing the same meta-acknowledgment of what you, the listener, know about Steve-o himself as part of the delivery for his music, which in this case is songs that he didn’t write.

And that’s kind of the problem. The whole time I was researching, listening and conceptualizing this very set of words I ran up against what is, on its face, the primary problem with writing anything about a Morrissey album: I hate every note of it. But outside of my own feelings about it, the whole thing still doesn’t make sense. I hate Kill Uncle or Your Arsenal or You Are the Quarry just as much, but the things that there are to respond to there are pure, unique Morrissey. He wrote his dumb songs about how you already feel or whatever in the interest of illuminating a set of feelings that is, at least, pretty common – there is a certain type of person whose concern is the way that people feel about them, and Morrissey writes songs that speak to those things well. The self-absorption and concern for the thoughts of others that occupy a dim, primitive part of many (if not all) human brains are illuminated and examined, and related to in a way that provides his audience with an ability to identify these same parts of themselves and deal with them in an effective way.

Morrissey was, in his way, the exact sort of thing that I’m inclined to like and go to some lengths to defend: he was doing what he does genuinely, and he was doing it in his own way, and he clearly did not care to alter it for whatever people were out there expecting things of him, even though the entire focus of his oeuvre is exactly about the expectations of those same people. And I’m here for examinations of feelings and reactions that we’d rather not acknowledge as part of our own brains 5. The fact that Morrissey took all of this and turned it into stupid music is probably why I have spent so much time trying to respond to it in the first place 6.

But when he performs other people’s songs, the Morrissey-ness of it is stripped away from everything except the presentation, and you’re sort of left looking at very little. He’s still singing them, and I suppose for whatever joys that holds you’ve got an opportunity to clutch at them, but none of these songs are in his words, so his voice is pretty well wasted on them – each of these songs could almost certainly be sung better by someone else, and the “geddit? GEDDIT?” aspect of the lyrical bent on each of these songs 7 intrudes every single time, and also creates a sort of isolation between the singer and the songs being sung in such a way that I can’t imagine engaging with this music even if I didn’t think that Morrissey’s bleating was as baffling and unmoving as everything else he does musically.

The music itself, then is kind of a trivial point, given that it’s barely-performed by someone who seemed to be more interested in making his point by the mere existence of the record, rather than in any meaningful way through the performances. The songs slide by without drawing much attention to themselves, unless you’re, say, writing a blog post about why anyone would want to listen to this. There are occasional moments of traction – Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocal appearance is weird enough to garner some attention 8, as is the lady who sings on “It’s Over”, and there are a couple of really, truly terrible production decisions on the record, which occasionally are bad enough to make me notice them (there’s a saxophone early on in the album that made me want to shove spoons through my ears, for example).

But the only two points at which the music made me think anything were during the Morrissey parts of “It’s Over”, in which Morrissey fails completely to be half the singer that Roy Orbison was, which lead me to listening to a bunch of Roy Orbison songs and being happy that the world ever had Roy Orbison in it, and wondering why you’d even try to take on a song that Roy Orbison ever sang – not because they’re necessarily better songs (his quality average was right about at the Mendoza line, honestly), but because he could sing the everloving shit out of anything and make it sound better.

Honestly, it’s things like “It’s Over” or the closing “(Some Say) I Got the Devil” 9 that reveal the biggest problem – when he’s almost invested in what he’s doing (he never gets all the way there, but this stuff is the closest), you can hear what he’s pretending to go for, but it’s only ever pretending. This album exists for the sake of the album existing, for him to waggle his public persona in the faces of his fans (or former fans, or the new fans that his political about-face has brought him), and not as a thing to be listened to.

So who the fuck does listen to it? People who are curious about the trainwreck, I suppose. There are probably some Morrissey die-hards who will try to like it, and, as mentioned above, the new political outlook probably drew some attention to him. But honestly, given that it isn’t a document of anything other than one cranky old man’s trolling habit, nobody will probably listen to it, and since doing so is tantamount to rewarding some pretty awful behavior, that’s probably the way it should be.

  1. the numerical majority of mentions on this here space pertain to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 
  2. I loathe virtually all of his music. I don’t like any of his solo music, and can be said to have enjoyed a bare handful of Smiths songs historically, the number of which dwindles to basically nothing at this point. He has occasionally had good guitar players. I also hate his stupid deflating-penguin voice, which is a large part of the selling point for his music, and which leaves me wondering what the hell everyone is hearing. I’m at peace with it. 
  3. here’s the last couple of installments in fact, which are about The Lemonheads and Weezer and, before that, Third Eye Blind. 
  4. aligning himself with marginal white supremacist and/or anti-immigration groups, talking loudly in the press about the demise and defilement of the “proper” Great Britain, stuff like that. The previous several decades of being a cranky, lying, impossible-to-work-with moron seem to slide off everyone’s back, but he’s managed to finally throw people off, which I guess is comforting. It’s nice to see that even Morrissey fans have a bottom to hit. 
  5. It’s among my favorite things, and in fact is the whole reason that I’m into huge whacks of the things that I’m into – because they help me process things that are a part of the repertoire of my own brain’s palette of responses and rationalizations. 
  6. You can plug Scott Walker, Elvis Costello, J. Cole, Janet Jackson, or Young Thug into this paragraph and would only have to change a few words, although none of them leave me as universally and completely unmoved as Morrissey 
  7. you know what, say what you will about the rest of this fucking mess, I’ve thought about the lyrics of this record more than the lyrics of any other record I can remember listening to in the recent past, so I appreciate it for that, anyway. 
  8. I was tempted to be mad about it, but jeez, I don’t know Billie Joe Armstrong’s reasons. He can’t agree with Morrissey politically much, but Willie Nelson sang on that godawful Toby Keith song about how we need more lynchings and the police should be killing more people, and he’s one of my genuine-actual real-life heroes, so people do weird shit sometimes. I mean, Billie Joe Armstrong is no Willie Nelson, but like, you didn’t think I meant that anyway, because how could anyone meant that? That’s crazy. Just crazy. 
  9. actually, it’s this song that almost led to an alternate-universe version of this piece where I spent more time comparing Morrissey to Will Oldham, who’s also a difficult, inconsistent, prickly dude with some iffy political beliefs, and who covered this exact song for my favorite covers record ever made – Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Tortoise’s The Brave and the Bold, which did not flatter Morrissey by its comparison. 

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