You are the Quarry - Morrissey

And so to the comeback of the year. Seven years without a contract, self-exiled to LA, the avatar of the awkward fled his homeland after a bitter divorce with the UK music press, a separation all the more sour because the ardour was once so strong. The eternal chronicler of the downtrodden seemed himself doomed to obscurity. Being a fan was virtually the love that dare not speak its name.

But back in 2002, triumphant homecoming shows coupled with renewed support from young bands like The Libertines saw the climate change. If ever there was a chance to return, this was it. Courting the media like never before, he certainly knows there's a lot riding on this. No wonder the album cover shows our more mature protagonist with a gun; this is the last chance saloon. Would we be the quarry or would he?

The opener "America Is Not The World" instantly upends expectations. This most famous detester of all things "dance" is singing over a hip hop/loungecore backbeat. And he's attacking the ignorance and prejudice of Bush's USA "where the President is never black, female or gay/ until that day/ you've got nothing to say to me" (he's since spelled that out recently for the slow kids at the back by calling for Dubbya's death onstage.)

So much for the hoary old racism allegations, but does that mean he rejects his new home? As ever in Mozland nothing is quite so simple, after comparing Yanks to voracious fat pigs he croons with typically breathtaking arrogance "but haven't you me with you now?/And I love you". Its love/hate with the US just as it was with the UK. This track has been lambasted for the simplicity of its lyrics. The critics forget, as often, that the northern nihilist has always liked to take the piss, and this is a fine example. They overlook too the sumptuousness of the tune and vocals. This is a fine opener.

"Irish Blood, English Heart" comes next, a short and powerful rocky number that crams in its two minutes a restatement of his pride in both his Englishness and Irishness, another scathing denunciation of those who accused him racism, and an attack on the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, Cromwell and the royal family. Not bad for a Top 5 single! He's back alright.

The tempo slows right down for the next three songs. "I Have Forgiven Jesus" sets the tone for half the album in showing that his voice is easily the finest it's ever been, but the tunes are often subtle, not "instant." The following "Come Back To Camden" shows that tendency at its optimum, a beautiful orchestral sweep with a near-operatic climax. It's served with the best of Morrissey's jaded brand of sepia nostalgia, singing of love lost under slate grey Victorian skies and disused dark brown stairwells. "I'm Not Sorry" is its nadir; too sparce, dull, showing the voice can't draw you in on its own even with the tantalising "the woman of my dreams?/there never was one" addition to the age old is he/isn't he conundrum.

Melody re-ignites with "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores", proving the man's bitterness and sharp tongue haven't mellowed with age. "Lock jawed pop stars thicker than pigshit" are among those lambasted here, easy targets sure, but great fun nonetheless, ending with a very pretty and atypical Beatle-esque bit of reverb. "How Can Anybody Possibly Think They Know How I Feel" gets down and dirty and quickens the pace a bit more, deepening the album's abiding sense of paranoia. These songs have been criticised as mere moans about his notorious court cases, but its not only everyone in authority who is savaged, but anyone who has ever liked him too! "Their judgement is crazy" apparently. There really is no pleasing some people. Fame fame fatal fame to quote an earlier number. But then batty misanthropy was always key to his twisted charm.

The next track is the album's centrepiece, and masterpiece. "The First Of The Gang To Die" is the only "character" song on the album, and the only example of Morrissey's longstanding tradition of Orton-esque, Genet-ish paens to bits of rough. This time it's the Mexican gangsters of LA that get the leery treatment. It may sound unpromising. In fact it's perfect.

The crashing guitar backing, the Latino strings, the frighteningly catchy chorus, everything falls impeccably together. "You have never been in love/until you've seen the stars/reflect in the reservoirs" sets the tone of drama, undercut with wicked humour. "Such a silly boy," he berates the song's anti-hero, sending up the obvious incongruity of a camp Englishman hanging round with Hispanic gang-bangers. As always, he knows his obsession with these characters is wrong; but all the more bedevilling for that. "He stole from the rich/and the poor/and the not very rich/and the very poor/and he stole all hearts away" he sings, as the word "away" floats to the ether in an achingly gorgeous falsetto which combines early Smiths yodellings with the power of his mature voice. It's enough to make you weep with maudlin joy, and one of his very best songs ever, solo or not.

With "Let Me Kiss You" we're back to more subtle and muted territory once more, but also the album's biggest grower. Over a distinctly Marr-ish arrangement Morrissey once more does self-deprecating yearning like no-one else, craving attention while knowing he will be "physically despised". Once more, at least in song, age seems only to add to his beguiling neurosis. He may reside in California, but he still revels in doing that most un-American of things; celebrating life's losers.

The following "All The Lazy Dykes" doesn't quite doesn't quite match up in the melody stakes but as with many songs here ends with a hugely moving finale. Its urge for a downtrodden housewife to find her freedom in saphism is oddly touching. "I've never felt so alive/in the WHOLE of my life" he sings, and as often in this album, one stunning inflection picks up an otherwise slight arrangement.

Onto the penultimate track, "I Like You". "America" apart, most of this album is basically guitar rock with a few atmospheric keyboard extras courtesy of new producer Jerry Finn; no huge departure really. But here we have a positively New Order-esque backbeat and an overdrive on the electronica. At its heart is a strident, killer chorus, where our protagonist seems utterly baffled by the alien feeling of actually finding someone he gets on with. "You're not right in the head/ and nor am I/ and this is why.....", once again, breathing beauty into everyday English phraseology.

With the climax, "You Know I Couldn't Last", what should be an arch crescendo to the set sadly ends up overdoing the bombast, with histrionic guitar crashes and the lyrics moaning just a bit too much this time. Throughout this disc, as throughout his career Morrissey has portrayed a mindset which to quote Larkin is "rusted stiff/and will admit/ only what will accuse or horrify/like slot machines only bent pennies fit." Most times on Quarry he pulls that off with optimum wit and charm. Just this once, you are reminded he is a rich middle-aged pop star still griping about a court case almost a decade back. A slightly sour aftertaste to a fine brew.

I was going to finish off by saying You Are The Quarry falls just short of greatness. But having listened to it repeatedly for nearly two months I think it may just reach that state after all. It's the slang-dictionary definition of the word "grower"; even songs I dismissed outright on first, second and third listens are now warmed to. If you're one of the haters who only ever saw Moz as a queasy mix of Kenneth Williams, Eddie Cochrane and Eeyore the Donkey this album certainly won't change your mind. But those who have seen worth in his gutter-eyed vision in the past may find much to treasure here if they only take the time.

Pop's prole-prince of the outsiders has returned in a more triumphant manner than we could have expected. I still feel it doesn't quite reach the heights of Viva Hate, Vauxhall and I or Your Arsenal. But its unquestionably Leeds' side-streets ahead of Kill Uncle, Southpaw Grammar or Maladjusted.

And as for the hoary old complaints its "not as good as The Smiths" one can only reply as Joseph Heller did when told each new book wasn't as good as Catch 22. "No. But then what is?"

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2004] Back