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California Son (BMG)

Somewhere in an office smelling of despair and yesterday’s unwisely chosen fish lunch, a record company executive is slowly plucking out the few hairs not already fallen out due to stress-induced alopecia.

It looked so simple, so fiendishly clever, in three steps you can imagine in a senior departments memo.

  1. Keep Morrissey away from lyrics so he can’t say something racist/nationalist/insulting we will need to mop up in the press kit.

  2. Keep his dullish co-writers away so we don’t have to worry about the usual pedestrian material which his tired melodies can’t lift.

  3. Get him to do a covers album (new questions in the interviews!) and have him include, among the obligatory lost/obscure underground icon (Jobriath), lesser known songs from quality folk (Tim Hardin, Melanie Safka) and pop (Carly Simon, Laura Nyro) writers, unexpected material from giants (Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Bacharach/David).

Genius! Let’s open the boardroom drinks cabinet

Except of course just recently Morrissey at least twice performed wearing a badge for one of the slurry of racist nationalist parties swirling around the bottom of the toilet pan that is Brexit, and bingo, the unpleasant truth of modern Morrissey intervenes.

But hey, it’s not his provocations this time. So if you can step past the smelly rhetorical turd of Morrissey’s “progression” from outsider’s hero to unlikely mainstream provocateur and then odious right-wing manqué, California Son is … well, still strange.

Not bad. Certainly not a stinker. But strange.

Hearing him put on the dramatic pop coat of Gary Puckett & The Union Gap in Jerry Fuller’s Lady Willpower (imagine a slightly less overwrought Young Girl) with brass and punchy drums, and then immediately slide into an ‘80s wide-shouldered suit of wholly machined drums, strings that sound like they’re from a box and the kind of amorphous female choir you would have heard under ABC or Paul Young, for Carly Simon’s When You Close Your Eyes, it’s striking how they sit oddly next to each other. They don’t really slot into any Morrissey solo or Smiths box, and yet his delivery is so similar and his range as narrow as ever that it’s tempting to think he did all the vocals in one and then they allocated them to a backing track.

More familiar territory is traversed in this somewhat ponderous arrangement of Tim Hardin’s Lenny’s Tune, done as a Morrissey ballad-in-essence: piano prominent, airy atmosphere around the slow evolving bass, the momentum in the tender sadness rather than the tempo, and of course a death, a mother and an almost forgotten icon of the popular culture past, Lenny Bruce.

Surprisingly, as I expected to be laughing, his take on Joni Mitchell’s Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow is not without appeal. The loose rhythm is reasonably replicated (though not as lightly stepping as on the original on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns), the saxophone is a bold choice which feels of the time at least, and there are some of the kind of oddly shaped sounds Joni liked to indulge in in the substrata.

I’m less convinced by Only A Pawn In Their Game which gives Bob Dylan’s original an injection of thunder in the bottom end and some border country accordion, contrasting with his slightly florid but never intense enough singing. And I’m more inclined to a raised eyebrow than actual enjoyment in the odd mix of bachelor pad and indie disco for Bacharach/David’s Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets (a Morrissey title if ever there was one) that unwisely casts aside the swing of Dionne Warwick’s 1970 version.

Surely he can at least nail the dramatics of Roy Orbison’s It’s Over? Yes, and a little bit no. There’s a splash of warble, the necessary bass and military drums, and in the chorus he reaches high in a way that challenges you to laugh but is unafraid if you do. Why there are these weird synth sounds that feel like dime-store Theremin dropped in haphazardly I couldn’t tell you.

It may be that the most natural moments are the ones that go to the heart of the young Stephen Patrick Morrissey.

Laura Nyro’s Wedding Bell Blues stays close to her template and could pass as the musical spot in a Two Ronnies episode when the Swingle Singers were away, but he feels unburdened and practically joyful. Likewise, Jobriath’s Morning Starship turns the acoustic-y, California pop rock moment into a busier, vampy mini-drama where excess arrives more often than is really necessary, but again Morrissey seems to be enjoying himself so that is more forgivable.

It’s unlikely that California Son will add to the sum of knowledge of any of these songs, or indeed of Morrissey himself. To that end it is hard to explain why we have the album at all. But then it’s still better than his last few, stronger than most of his past 15 years and, best of all, contains no visible signs of offensive right wing stupidities. Let’s count that as a win shall we?

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