The Album List #38: Morrissey “Viva Hate”

The Prince of Sadness and Gladioli Speaks. And it is magnificent.

It’s Morrissey.

I’m a music nerd who was raised in the 1980s. My peak music period was the early 1990s. Morrissey was there through it all, and he continues to be there to this day.

I am sure we Moz fans tend to get those pitying looks from people. You know the look. The head tilted to one side as they condescendingly nod, looking at you with “God, they’re really crazy” eyes. Okay, this might just be me. I get that from everyone about everything. Damn it, I don’t care. I adore the Smiths so much, and I love Morrissey. Get over it.

Oddly enough, the album itself sounds very much like a Smiths record, which is probably why it remains my favourite solo Morrissey album. Produced by the Smiths producer Stephen Street, the album is of course laced with Morrissey’s brand of humour. It’s a confrontational, acidic album, from the title onwards. The story is the acrimonious Smiths breakup mere months earlier inspired the album title, and songs like “Margaret on the Guillotine”- well, it’s 1988 in the U.K.

The sheer beauty of a Moz lyric can make or break a song. When he get’s self-important, he can become unbearable. When he’s on the right side of that very thin line he treads, where his self-absorption doesn’t melt into complete egomania, he is very effective. A song like “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, where he describes the miserable existence of off-season sea towns, shimmers with melancholy and resignation. “The Ordinary Boys” hits home with its wish to escape mundane life.  “Suedehead” is so catchy and memorable, and inspired one the most famous on record arguments about music ever between Ryan Adams and David Rawlings.

A song like “Angel, Angel, Down We Go Together”, a short burst of pleading and strings, hits as hard as a song like “Late Night, Maudlin Street”, which is as humourous as the former song is earnest.  “Angel, Angel” was reportedly about Morrissey’s wayward Smith band mate, guitarist Johnny Marr, who would comfortably sink into his role as guitar hero and play with everyone who mattered. “Maudlin Street” seems to be about leaving home, and is heavily percussive. In fact, Morrissey’s youth seems to play a significant role in his lyrics, whether it’s his obsession with kitchen sink drama and James Dean (” Little Man, What Now” and “Suedehead”), his parent’s divorce (“Break Up The Family”), the dreary teenage years he spent in Manchester ( “The Ordinary Boys”). The Smiths style also comes and goes- “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me” sounds very much like a Strangeways Here We Come bonus track, while “Little Man, What Now” is harsher and more militaristic than the Smiths would ever dream of.

As for the controversial “Bengali in Platforms”- well… I took it to be a song about a Bengali boy cross dressing. That’s hard enough if you were born and raised in Manchester, let alone from a culture where that is probably more than frowned upon. Is it Moz’s most eloquent? No. Are claims of racism out of line? No. It’s a song damaged by an inarticulate lyric. Considering that racism charges continue to be levelled at Morrissey to this day, I think this is a topic he struggles with. I don’t think he’s actively racist, and I do see him as someone who is trying to be all-encompassing and liberal in his world view. If he is encouraging multiculturalism, he probably could have said it better. I really can’t say, I’m not Morrissey. He’s a complicated creature who sometimes says things I dislike and cannot defend. One wants their heroes to be perfect, but they are not. We must learn to accept the good and condemn the bad. Defenders who lack a critical eye do more harm than good.

Overall, the album is one of the great solo debuts of all time. This doesn’t mean that if the Smiths reunited tomorrow I’d be upset. In fact, I’d probably start walking to wherever the nearest show would be. I love the man, I love his music (for the most part), and I would follow him till the ends of the earth.



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