How Soon Is Then?

The Smiths' aging bigmouth messiah risks ridicule, wags his finger, and stamps his feet

"You're still here," Morrissey observed over an adoring roar at a sold-out Apollo show recently. "And I'm still here—what's left of me, anyway." It was a touching moment of offhand solidarity. An authority himself on the psychology of hero worship, Steven Patrick Morrissey—very much a living sign at 45, albeit one with thinned quiff and slightly thickened girth—knows that if there's anything more difficult than being an aging pop messiah, it's being an aging fan of an aging pop messiah.

For those of us who were soothed, emboldened, and perhaps ruined by the Smiths' heedless transfiguration of our youthful miseries into something pointedly heroic and vengeful and so gruesomely handsome we couldn't tell if we were being liberated or doubly imprisoned, Morrissey is not just the proud owner of the world's largest inferiority and superiority complexes. He's the first love we never got over, the bigmouth who struck again and again with poisonously precise epigrams about smothering loneliness and murderous desire, the implausibly charming man who, as early as the Smiths' first single, foretold the possessive, mutually flattering relationship each disciple would live out with him: "No, it's not like any other love/This one is different because it's us."

But adolescent lifelines exist to be severed, and Morrissey is an ideal candidate for parricidal betrayal: There's no one harder to recover from, but also no one easier to renounce—the songs that saved your life are, after all, shaming reminders that you once needed saving. To confront Morrissey's unwavering moan is to face the possibility that the bruising inadequacies and hopeless hungers you thought cured (by requited love, gainful employment, psychotherapy) have merely been inhibited by an adult self-consciousness. And now he's at it again, risking ridicule midway through his fetchingly regal new album (his first in seven years, a hiatus longer than the Smiths' life span) by daring to ask the most petulant of existential questions: "How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel?"

Very much a living sign at 45
photo: Girlie Action
Very much a living sign at 45

Well, let's give it a shot: The sleeve typography clears up the mystery of the title's pronoun: Morrissey, you are the quarry. And the photo—Moz in Kray-chic pinstripes brandishing a tommy gun—suggests the quarry is not taking it lying down. But before the perpetual victim commences his score-settling massacre, the first two songs clarify his status as an exile in L.A. (ensconced, like Gloria Swanson plotting a spiteful comeback, in a house built by Clark Gable). "America Is Not the World" wags a finger at an imperialist land of obese carnivores but admits a grudging devotion; the simplistic ambivalence is perhaps forgivable, given his last sticky attempt at serious political comment (Your Arsenal's queasy experiments in racist-thug empathy). The thrillingly lean single "Irish Blood, English Heart," a revving, sputtering anthem of disgusted patriotism, confirms that Morrissey's idée fixe is an Englishness so abstract it can just as easily be nursed poolside in Beverly Hills as from the dank depths of a Manchester bedsit.

Hardly a natural political songwriter, Morrissey is motivated less by social action than sociological curiosity. Accordingly, Quarry's best track, "First of the Gang to Die," is a kiss blown to his Latino fan base, the latest page in his Genet-esque scrapbook of sweet and tender hooligans, deftly substituting Chicano for Cockney. Another highlight, "I Like You," finds the rhapsodist of consuming loves and hates incredulous at experiencing an emotion so temperate as to be utterly alien: "Could it be I like you?"

Elsewhere, old tricks are comfortably rehabilitated: a couple of too-ugly-to-live why-me sulks ("Let Me Kiss You," "I Have Forgiven Jesus"), a teasing boudoir peek ("The woman of my dreams, well/there never was one"), and much foot-stamping ire, directed mostly at the judge who ruled for Smiths drummer Mike Joyce in a royalties suit (trust Morrissey to wear this perceived courtroom injustice as a Wildean badge of honor). The only atypical thing about Quarry—chalk it up to age or Californication—is the lazy bluntness of the lyrics, a showstopping use of "gelignite" notwithstanding. (Odd to hear the master of the dashing sideswipe settle for "thicker than pigshit.") Still, the Moz croon is more succulent than ever, and the music productively splits the difference between Your Arsenal's thrusting butchness and Vauxhall & I's voluptuous enervation. Its mundane pettiness implies the only life it could conceivably save is—poignantly enough—Morrissey's. Maybe it's finally time to redefine this not-like-any-other love. Could it be I . . . like him?

 
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