Having already culminated one legendary career as the voice of the Smiths, and now five years into creating what would eventually become a second legendary one as the voice of himself, Steven Patrick Morrissey was at an interesting impasse in 1992. Following the Smiths’ contentious split in 1987, public opinion was at best divided concerning Morrissey’s future prospects as a solo artist. So endemic was Johnny Marr’s guitar sounds to the success of that band, and so seemingly limited was Morrissey’s musical ability beyond his genius as a vocalist and wordsmith, it was difficult to imagine exactly how he would pull it off minus his crackerjack collaborators.
As it transpired, Morrissey wasted little time in disabusing doubters of his future relevance. His first two singles, recorded with longtime Smiths producer Stephen Street, were instant classics that ranked with the best of his former band’s work: “Suedehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” Moz then proceeded to follow that up with the unimpeachably terrific full-length Viva Hate, which featured not only the two great earlier singles, but also a buffet of tremendous hooks, wit, and pathos including indelible tracks like “Late Night, Maudlin Street” and “Hairdresser On Fire.” Amidst the sterling material, there was also a curious song — “Bengali In Platforms” — which seemed to both sympathetically address an Indian immigrant to Britain, and also suggest that maybe the principal in question “didn’t belong here.” Regardless, Morrissey had re-established his bona fides as a first-tier songwriter and vouchsafed the promise of his output going forward.
Then suddenly it seemed the sure-footed exertion had taken a toll. Kill Uncle, the follow up to Viva Hate, came late and felt relatively uninspired. Morrissey’s own Manchester had become an international phenomenon of rave excess: Madchester. It was a great and brave new sound, but one that made Morrissey’s own music seem temporarily dated and irrelevant. (Once again, it seemed, he would have to hang the DJs.) Something new and re-energizing was clearly in order, but what to do?
It is emblematic of Morrissey’s ingratiating and irritating genius that when faced squarely with the future, he would turn directly to the past. For his third solo full-length, he would choose as producer the legendary, aging Mick Ronson — the great guitarist whose career had taken him everywhere from Ziggy Stardust’s second lieutenant, to lead guitar on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. By any measure it was a roll-the-dice option — Ronson was older and infirm (less then a year later he would be dead from liver cancer) and for all of his countless achievements he could hardly have been termed a “hot producer” at the time. Nevertheless, in a moment of seeming artistic confusion, Morrissey went back to his roots, crafting a record that uncannily channeled all of the great glam rock that he had grown up on and been inspired by as a child. It was a record that seemingly only the two of them, or maybe Tony Visconti, could make: T-Rex fronted by Oscar Wilde.
Your Arsenal is bracing, immediate and wonderfully entertaining. It is entirely clear from the killer opening salvo of “You’re Going To Need Someone On Your Side” and “Glamorous Glue” — both filled with boisterous guitars and great glam melodies — that the pairing with Ronson is going to work like gangbusters. “You’re Going To Need Someone On Your Side” is a “Suffragette City” for the ’90s –- a devastatingly funny statement of purpose on which unforgettable guitar parts compete with brilliant epigrams. “Glamorous Glue” is Sweet-style glam swing, but one with a toxic edge. By the third song, the effecting ballad “We’ll Let You Know,” it is apparent that something else is going on. Moz has always been political in his way, but on this record there is a bit of a strange strand happening. “Glamorous Glue” declares, “We won’t vote conservative/ because we never have.” Also: “We look to Los Angeles for the language we use/London is dead.” On “We’ll Let You Know,” he laments, “we are the last truly British people.”
Then there is “The National Front Disco,” an overt reference to the neo-fascist whites-only political party that reached a peak of popularity in England in the 1970s. In 1977, Elvis Costello released “Less Then Zero” as an unmistakably scathing criticism of British fascism. Morrissey’s take is decidedly more subtle, emoting lyrics like: “England for the English!” with a verve and apparent lack of irony that is, at a minimum, dissonant. It is also, by the way, an incredibly catchy song.
Picking up on these themes, the rarely subtle British music trades went ballistic, going so far as to accuse Morrissey of blatant racism. This led to a long-running dispute between the artist and the New Music Express, eventually culminating in a libel suit against the magazine in 2007. Remarkably, the matter was not fully settled until last month, when NME apologized to Morrissey and he subsequently ceased legal proceedings.
So stipulating that Morrissey is NOT a racist, what did he have in mind here? Why was he winding us up? Had an ugly nationalistic bent truly manifested itself in the work of this progressive humanist? It is difficult to say exactly, but Morrissey’s provocations seem too frequent and deliberate to possibly interpret as anything less than intentional. The history of England’s great leftist authors, from George Orwell to Kingsley Amis, is littered with late-period turns to conservatism. It also the tradition of British writers to gore sacred cows of every stripe, just because they are there. In the case of Your Arsenal, the most likely explanation seems to be a little of both. Maybe Moz’s flirtations with right wing ideology stem from the sheer exoticism of it all — he’s not fully right wing here, just sort of right-curious. And if all the fun of outraging the bloviating left wing media comes along with the package, well who can resist that?
Your Arsenal is not all politics and prose. First side closer “Certain People I Know” is a jaunty, country-inflected number that resolves to more typical Morrissey concerns, meaning the people he hates and he suspects hate him. Following the blitzkrieg of the album’s opening songs, it feels like a breath of fresh air and an entre into Your Arsenal‘s perhaps less ambitious but possibly more engaging second side.
The first tracks on Side B maintain the visceral momentum while dialing down some of the political anger. The fantastic, lilting, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” provides Morrissey’s commentary on the expanding Manchester scene. There is goodwill here and also a bit of provincial cannibalism. He seems at once transfixed and impressed with the new kids on the block but also allows, “It should have been me.” This is followed by the equally ebullient love song, “You’re The One For Me Fatty.” Like a lot of Morrissey songs, there are unconfirmed rumors about what inspired this track, but what we can say is that falls under a longstanding rubric of weight-obsessed songs and lyrics that dot Moz’s peculiar career arc. “You’re The One For Me Fatty” has the following advantages: It is catchy, earnest, and unlike certain other of Morrissey’s devotionals, feels unironic and true.
The record then takes a left turn into plaintive helplessness on “Seasick, Yet Still Docked,” whose themes of existential hopelessness are the equivalent of Smiths’ laments like “Asleep” and “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” On the penultimate slow-burner, “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” Morrissey manages to channel enough of his hero David Bowie that the great man himself was eventually moved to cover it.
Oddly, but strangely appropriately, on an album preoccupied with cultural and political anxiety, Your Arsenal concludes with the terrific and highly personal lament “Tomorrow,” a straightforward expression of hope to a would-be paramour, with its repeated plea “Tell me that you love me,” which seems to indemnify the view that global politics are always trumped by personal ones.
In the final analysis, perhaps the brilliant Your Arsenal served as not only a tremendous return to form, but also as a means for an iconic artist to distance himself from the political and social orthodoxies he felt were closing in around him. This is frequently the case with career artists of a certain magnitude — both Neil Young and Bob Dylan aggressively supported Ronald Reagan. If this is Morrissey’s “I Miss Margaret Thatcher” album, at least it’s exceptionally written and incredibly fun.