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Thursday, 14 February 2008

Decca dence: Morrissey's Greatest Hits

The CD is designed to look like a classic Decca label - the vintage simulacra suggesting vinyl, and perhaps a divine, long-past, moment of glamour for the recording artist. Morrissey's latest album has been greeted with much engaged critique, some of it of note for poetry anthologists, and others who like to think about the problematic nature of canons, and of career trajectories. This Greatest Hits has 15 tracks. As everyone now knows, the majority are from the recent two albums, from 2004 and 2006 - short shrift for the early works (post-Smiths) of 1988 - still, this is a 20-year-span retrospective. The absences trouble critics who (heaven knows why) wanted a seamless linear progression to be portrayed - as if Morrissey was not a provocative artist, but a national economy with a satisfying upward curve. Truth is, he is on the upswing - most of these "hits" are drawn from his late-flowering mid-career. I am thinking, now, of Gene Pitney, another flamboyant, odd, highly-versatile singer-songwriter, who also enjoyed persona, and flirted with a homoerotic (if more subtle) appearance.

Pitney is different from Morrissey in that he disappeared in every uncannily fraught and intense song he wrote and sang (each in a different style) - but they share a professionalism that made each song a crafted separate unit. However, Morrissey is, like Wilde, someone who has nothing to declare but his genius - in fact, not even that, his genius is a given, has nothing to declare but his self-reflection (some of us are in the gutter looking at ourselves). We know what he sees - the dismal truth that death is coming, and that life is sad and lonely - and sometimes filled with violent boys and men. So, not just Gene, but Genet, then. But Pitney, too, because, aging, Morrissey is reconfiguring himself as a master-entertainer, a stage artist, and someone with a back catalogue that is slowly solidifying - becoming as hefty, as considerable, as Elvis Costello's - maybe even Elvis's? For, this is sturdy rock music, isn't it? The music is not central, it is a backdrop, often cheesy - the frontman is very much to the fore. One also needs to recall Leonard Cohen, at this point - another droll, melancholy cabaret singer who never lets the musical fabric be more than standard velvet curtains behind him.

These are, despite what the critics say, his hits. He might have chosen other favoured songs from early albums (several of my favourites are missing, like "Sister I'm A Poet" and "Dagenham Dave") - but they were not Top 20 songs. This is Morrissey's canon, not of "best" songs, but most commercially-successful. It is his bid for something other than critical, or cult, status - for National Treasure status. The curious thing is, he already has that. However, this monument lays out that actuality, and makes it solidly public. As various critics have observed, he has become something hoped-for, but still startling: the only alternative British singer-songwriter of the 1980s to be more popular, respected, and commercially-active now than 20 years before (not even Sting can really claim this). Prince and Madonna have lost some lustre. Morrissey is aging comfortably into lounge lizard mode.

What of the songs? How good is he, really? Eyewear thinks everyone should own this album, or at least these songs. Morrissey is a genius, and a cultural phenomenon, and will be one of the people you'd want to meet in heaven, 100 years from now. The best songs drip with the same acid wit that Larkin had. They are also tedious, dysfunctional, repetitive, and, yes, whingeing. No other popular recording artist has ever managed to project such a powerful sense of voice, one so clearly of a disordered personality - in poetry, Poe did this, maybe Berryman - and, rarely has humour and real existential venom been so mixed. Maybe Larkin is the closest, then.

But Larkin didn't sing his own songs, and wasn't so sexually ambiguous - though both men pretend to keep love's objects at bay - make hay from such efforts. Finally, "there is no such thing in life as normal" - Morrissey's message is bracing, liberating, and has empowered people. The songs rise from the sometime-mediocrity of their melodies (though they are often catchy), to become strange anthems for (yes) doomed youth. Someone - was it me? - said Morrissey was like Sinatra. Well, a Sinatra that wrote his own songs, was not exactly heterosexual, and less-swaggering - but both command their moment, their stage, as forceful undeniable international presences - as total egos in engrossing action. What greater thing can an artist become? Well, objective, Eliot would have said... but he didn't have Wilde on his side.
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