In 1997, Morrissey released an album called Maladjusted. Twenty years later, that title feels sadly prophetic. In an era where most performers his age would be happy to rely on past glories or seminal reformations, the perma-quiffed curmudgeon has instead indulged in ill-advised barbs denouncing the “blustery jingoism” of the London Olympics, built up Brexit as “magnificent” and made controversial comments regarding the UKIP leadership. Oh, and he also released a novella that’s only redeeming feature was a penis being referred to as a “bulbous salutation.”
All of these factors have seen Morrissey became a tiresomely predictable figure, one that is seemingly determined to be divisive. At his recent BBC 6 Music performance, airing new tracks from forthcoming record Low In High School, his urbane stage banter was largely devoted to a bizarre soundbite on one of Britain’s most derided of parties. Of course, it was met with a silence so awkward one thought Moz was about to read the court case passage from his autobiography.
On one hand, there is only one thing worse than being talked about. Ever since his ‘second comeback’ in 2004, Morrissey’s vitriolic comments have made him a dead ringer for Jeremy Clarkson’s cousin. He’s declared war on Canada for seal clubbing, called the Chinese race a “subspecies”, admitted he likes “Nigel Farage a great deal” and took NME to court after being accused of, you guessed it, racism (back when the magazine was still quite credible).
However, the other most salient point is that Morrissey’s frequent flirtations with controversial comments are blemishing his brilliant back catalogue. As a solo artist, he can be frustratingly flabby, but when he’s on top form he is formidable. Push Morrissey into a corner, write him off as a has-been, and he delivers a comeback as devastating as two clenched fists. Just look at the funereal melodies of 1994’s Vauxhall & I, the striking You Are the Quarry and his most recent record, the eclectic but energetic World Peace Is None of Your Business.
However, listening to those records – where the Mancunian displays signs of weakness, of defiance, of vulnerability – feels slightly shameful, as if we’re listening to the work of a convicted criminal. Sometimes, even hearing the homespun heartache of The Smiths can cause a lump in the throat, that the man that once waved around gladioli is now more comfortable wielding a AK47.
There has always been controversy where Morrissey is concerned, however. Go as far back as 1992, when Morrissey was riding on a crest of credibility from the wonderful Your Arsenal LP, and he was courting with a Union Jack in front of a skinhead backdrop. Listen to tracks like ‘Spring-Heeled Jim’ and ‘Dagenham Dave’, songs that paint Moz as a firm admirer of the rough-knuckled, smooth-tongued South London stereotype. But with the impending release of Low In High School, it finally feels like the controversy has outweighed the anticipation.
When before the announcement of a Morrissey tracklisting would cause ripples of expectant mirth, this time it felt like a crushing caveat. In the good old days, we would be treated to wonderfully verbose monikers like ‘Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning’, ‘Roy’s Keen’ and ‘Pregnant for the Last Time’, while now we recoil in worry at the sight of ‘The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel’. Then there is the cover, which also feels slightly gimmicky – usually it would be Morrissey holding something (a violin, a baby, a marker pen), but this time he’s been replaced by a rough-haired roustabout fresh from a Dickensian work mine, spouting the rather blatant slogan ‘axe the monarchy’. He’s also holding an axe. Of course, one is sure Morrissey’s tongue was violently in his cheek, but is it all a campaign designed to divide? Propaganda planned by PowerPoint?
Whether the album is any good remains to be seen – the tracks aired at Maida Vale suggest an LP with the same Eastern flavours and eccentricities as his last. But the main issue now is whether Morrissey will ever again court new fans. Surely it would feel like admitting you vote Tory? Or, worse, UKIP.