The spokesperson for the young, fey dispossessed was already 33 years old, and had been a solo artist longer than The Smiths survived, by the time he made Your Arsenal, his fourth solo album, released in 1992. This was made with the late British guitar ace Mick Ronson as producer: a curious, possibly beguiling choice. Ronson was a Mormon and a generation older than Morrissey, a 1960s rocker in appearance yet with a CV dominated by his time with the very 1970s David Bowie of The Man Who Sold The World. He had also co-produced Lou Reed’s Transformer album, been lead guitarist on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revues and prominent on Dylan’s Hard Rain album.
The upshot, on Your Arsenal, is a Morrissey with a heavier sound and an almost perverse denial of emphasis on the lyrics.
From ‘You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side’ you might think punk has won out, after all, over the shy postmodernist who had spent the 1980s espousing celibacy, telling us “Meat Is Murder” and generally voicing the luxuriant romanticism of the lonelier and purer than thou.
He hasn’t really changed. “I wanted,” he said, “to make as physical a record as I possibly could, instead of constantly being curled up in a little ball at the foot of the bed” - but asked if the cover shot of him, shirt open to the waist, is meant to be sexy, it’s typical that he should reply “Really, what would be the point?” Most of the album captures the Morrissey of that retort.
It also captures his lovely voice, the one that seems to come from having his head in the clouds, up in a forlorn and plaintive ether. Morrissey sings like the thinking person’s P.J.Proby, while evoking a T.S.Eliot England of foggy streets and unrequited love endured in grimy rooms with mugs of tea.
Rarely has angst been so sumptuous. Even on a track as vaudeville-jolly as ‘Certain People I Know’, Morrissey still expresses his gloomy absolutes: singing, for instance, that “They’d sacrifice all, all their principles for anything that’s cashable”, to which, typically, he adds the deliberately feeble line “I do believe it’s terrible” - a wry self-mockery parading his feeling of helplessness in the face of these people he’s up against.
A reviewer in Q magazine claimed that this album “easily stands comparison with the best of The Smiths”, adding that at least he's no longer “whingeing about having to go to the launderette.” Nonsense. We value the side of Morrissey that whinges about going to the launderette: it’s the slice of life rock music forgets. And this album does not compare with the best of The Smiths.
There is nothing to match the intensely personal rendering of time and place and struggle found in the 1985 song ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’: “End of the pier, end of the bay / You tug my arm and say ‘Give in to lust, / Give up to lust, oh heaven knows we’ll soon be dust”. Nor is there any equal to individual lines like “I’ve called to wish you an unhappy birthday” or “Well I was looking for a job and I’ve found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now”. Nothing matches the first solo album’s ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’, nor the second’s ‘Interesting Drug’.
But the Morrissey of Your Arsenal still comes drooping into your room like some elegant young wastrel who should make you tell him to pull his socks up. You don't - because he remains the first to confess his own hopelessness, and because underneath, there just might still shine his stubborn, intelligent ardour for a better world.