Rock’s nostalgia business makes crude marketing sense, but there’s something peculiar about pining for Morrissey. To be a Smiths fan, as I was back in high school (when I was tormented for my “faggy” John Fleuvog shoes), was to feel awkward and socially oppressed—why would anyone seek to revive memories of that? Morrissey’s new album, You Are the Quarry, reveals the answer: Emotionally unchanged since the eighties, Morrissey is a link to that uncomfortable past we would do better to forget but, like the singer himself, often revel in.
The Sex Pistols reunion shattered the notion that certain bands might resist nostalgia’s pull, but it’s still disappointing that Morrissey has given in to reminiscing. His strongest solo work was always defiantly unsentimental (“I’m so glad to grow older, to move away from those darker years,” he sang on his first—and best—solo album, Viva Hate).
Somewhere along the way, though, Morrissey decided that he should celebrate his fans’ worst impulses rather than challenge them. That turnaround seemed to come during his string of sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in the early nineties, which featured boys bum-rushing the stage to envelop a clearly thrilled Morrissey. In the sweaty embrace of his fans, Morrissey changed. Among other things he gave up on the Smiths’ music-industry criticism (most pointed in the mocking cry of “Reissue! Repackage! Repackage!” on “Paint a Vulgar Picture”) and indulged in his own, yes, repackaging. Through the nineties, Morrissey became MorrisseyTM, with endlessly rejiggered compilations of his solo singles like 1995’s World of Morrissey. Other than 1992’s provocative Your Arsenal, his new music suffered, too. Such albums as 1997’s Maladjusted were rote and listless, and fans drifted away.
Now, with New Wave nostalgia peaking, the fans are back and Morrissey is, too: He sold out nearly a week of shows at the Apollo Theater. Amazon cheerily noted that “based on customer purchases, [You Are the Quarry] is the No. 1 Early Adopter Product in Alternative Rock.” Where the Morrissey of old would have howled at this cant, it aptly describes the new Morrissey.
Quarry doesn’t have great songs, just not-so-clever quips like “And don’t you wonder / Why in Estonia they say / Hey you, big fat pig” (“America Is Not the World”). Mostly, he offers weak expressions of his love-this-loser ethos, as in “This world is full / So full of crashing bores / And I must be one / Because no one ever turns to me to say / ‘Take me in your arms’ ” (“The World Is Full of Crashing Bores”).
Emotional stasis has always been central to Morrissey’s persona—he famously told an interviewer, “I don’t want anything to interfere with this state of dissatisfaction”—and Morrissey’s peers like the Cure face the same sort of expectations from their fans. But the Cure’s Robert Smith has held onto his romantic worldview while transforming his band into expansive, almost psychedelic rockers. Morrissey doesn’t try half as hard, content to play his own caricature, alt-rock’s Woody Allen. On his great 1992 single “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,” Morrissey winked at how his sudden fame was received by admirers. But it isn’t success that makes Morrissey hateful; it’s his turning of adolescent inadequacies into a crass road show.