The release of Kill Uncle
in 1991 abruptly and comprehensively brought the curtain down on the days of broad critical acclaim that Morrissey had previously enjoyed – both throughout his time with The Smiths, and with the release of his debut solo album Viva Hate
. The reason why Kill Uncle
was so poorly received is the same reason why the most part of Morrissey’s solo work has been poorly received – because it has always been measured up against the legacy of The Smiths. This is quite a particular phenomenon. Most artists are derided for refusing to change and develop their sound, but Morrissey has always suffered as a writer for deviating from the very fixed public conception of what ‘Morrissey’ means. The adoring Smiths fans that lived and breathed the melancholic lyrics of the celibate, vegetarian ‘outsider’s outsider’ were thrown by the release of Kill Uncle
. Morrissey working with a rockabilly band? Morrissey singing about bar conversation and gang crime? Even, God forbid, Morrissey dropping questionable puns? Kill Uncle
didn’t stand a chance with the majority of the audience because the singer was no longer Their Morrissey, and so the days of The Smiths became hallowed and Morrissey’s solo work was in turn largely written off. It is this same unjust reaction that led to the maligning of one of his finest albums, 1995’s Southpaw Grammar
The record released prior to Southpaw
was the triumphant number one album Vauxhall and I
, which represented the one moment Morrissey truly managed to reconnect with the conscience of the British public since the early 90’s. It was broadly looked to as the beginning of an artistic resuscitation, and even succeeded in drawing new Morrissey fans who were freshly captivated by the beauty of his work. The direction that Southpaw Grammar
would take following this startling commercial achievement was brave indeed. In fact Morrissey’s own prediction for the fate of the forthcoming release was humorously revealed in the video for the precursory single, ‘Dagenham Dave’: it opened with him taking his Vauxhall and I gold disc to the pawn shop. This wry, off-hand gesture was to be vindicated by the reception of Southpaw Grammar
upon its release – it sold well off the back of Vauxhall
, but it was mauled by the music press.
This reaction may have been predictable, but it was also wholly unjustified. Southpaw
is an engaging collection of some of Morrissey’s grittiest and most uncompromising songs, and it forms an invaluable part of the Morrissey canon – albeit one that very rarely gets an airing. The album is often grouped by music critics with 1997’s Maladjusted
and the aforementioned Kill Uncle
under the bracket of ‘poor 90’s Morrissey releases’, but where there was an element of laziness in the other two recordings, Southpaw
conversely bristles with vigour and urgency.
The opening track ‘The Teachers Are Afraid of The Pupils’ can be considered nothing less than a terror ballad, and provides a genuinely menacing opener. The sinister melody that is threaded through this 11-minute recording is introduced with a sparse, hypnotic string arrangement that continues to build in impetus for a full 1 minute 20 seconds before Morrissey breaks in with a stone-cold vocal. If nothing else this song represents the extent to which the Morrissey band had developed during their time with him, and just how willing Morrissey was to allow them their musical freedom. Southpaw Grammar
probably has less of Morrissey’s own words on it than any one of his other releases. Much criticism has been levelled at this opening song – mainly suggestions that it is overlong and pretentious – but the hysterical desperation invoked by the rise and fall of the swirling music over the 11 minutes justifies this length, and perfectly compliments the subject matter. Morrissey’s lyrics are immaculately placed, and the uncharacteristically icy delivery is married seamlessly with the music. Slightly dry production doesn’t do the song justice over time, however.
For any first-time listeners thrown by the shocking departure presented by ‘The Teachers Are Afraid of The Pupils’, the second track ‘Reader Meet Author’ must have come as a welcome relief, as the sound is far more traditionally Morrissey and less instantly affronting. This does render the immediately recognisable guitar work and arguably underwhelming lyric almost formulaic by comparison, but the song is fortunately bolstered by a strong instrumental break and a rousing chorus refrain. These descending guitar parts accompany Morrissey’s strongest lyrical moments to give the song a little bounce – the most charming of these coming as Morrissey relates the pathetic defence of the whinging author: ‘No one ever sees me when I cry’. Typically and endearingly scathing.
‘Boy Racer’ follows, and from the very opening muted notes is an all-time Morrissey classic: the punchiest music of the album is littered with a wealth of lyrical gems that characterise the spirit of this blackly comedic record. ‘Boy Racer’ is the most engaging song on Southpaw
, and to a greater extent than its stable mates offers no quarter in its delivery. It is also a reflection of Morrissey’s love affair with gang culture and the physical, violent side of society – he was sporting fake facial injuries for the video. Most prominently though it harkens back to the celebratory revelry of 1992’s Your Arsenal
, and it has a triumphant air not present in his work again until the release of You Are The Quarry in 2004. The greatest strength of ‘Boy Racer’ though lies not in the music, but in the quite astonishing lyrics. A lyric as delicious as ‘He thinks he’s got the whole world in his hand, stood at the urinal... and I’m gonna kill him’ can only be matched by the hilarious petty jealousies here such as ‘he’s got too much money’ and ‘he’s just too good looking’. The guitar comes into its own delightfully in the third minute, and plays out this unmitigated joy with deserved confidence.
As is often the case with Morrissey, a classic such as ‘Boy Racer’ is often followed by something questionable, and the next track, ‘The Operation’, must surely be considered that. To summarise, it opens with a drum solo lasting over two minutes, moves into the jaunty guitar of the main body of the song and then inexplicably drops into a high-paced and utterly pointless, almost adolescent, guitar coda. The song’s only lyrics lay in the middle section, and none of them are particularly good, whilst the song eventually clocks in at a substantial 6:53. One is at first inclined to question how ‘The Operation’ even made it on to the album. However, this peculiar song – constituting the confused heart of Southpaw Grammar – does have a place here. It succeeds in gifting the record with a certain freshness, and provides a break from the impenetrable guitar textures that lay densely across the most part of the album – it just doesn’t stand up as a song in its own right. A stronger centrepiece would have changed the character of Southpaw dramatically, and probably for the better. It is more than a dispensable curio, but it remains one of the weakest tracks on the album. The good aspects of ‘The Operation’ are frustratingly marred by the extraneous and puerile ones.
The fifth track from Southpaw Grammar is the infamous ‘Dagenham Dave’ – sourced more frequently than any other track by those seeking to denounce Morrissey’s solo work. Very little of particular worth can be said about it, except that it is a deeply self-aware and fundamentally playful single release. Taken lightly this is a worthy facet of the album, and when Morrissey is dropping lyrics like ‘Head in a blouse and a mouthful of pie, everybody loves him, I see why’ it is hard not to smile – also tailing off with ‘I could say more, but you get the general idea’ after uttering only a handful of lyrics beautifully recalcitrant. It is surprising that people pick up on the facetious moments in Morrissey’s solo career to criticise, but the silliest moments from his days with The Smiths – ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’ from The Queen is Dead springs to mind, amongst others – are taken without prejudice as part of a whole. Morrissey has always been playful, and it has always been an enjoyable part of his work.
The next track is ‘Do Your Best and Don’t Worry’, and of all the tracks on Southpaw Grammar this is the least outstanding. That is the not to say that it is at all bad; merely that it doesn’t strike out from the rest of the recording as the other tracks do. In fact, in its straightforward delivery, it is somehow uplifting, and it is certainly Southpaw’s most magnanimous offering. The most frustrating aspect of this track is that beneath Morrissey’s slightly flat vocal the band are actually doing great work – the bass on this track being particularly excellent. The best moment of ‘Do Your Best and Don’t Worry’ comes at the end, when the band are given license to emerge to a greater degree. Following the distinctiveness of ‘The Operation’ and ‘Dagenham Dave’ it is easy to sideline this song and ‘Best Friend On The Payroll’, the track that follows it, as filler – when they are in fact both entirely decent songs. They contribute to the uniformity of sound that Southpaw possesses that, in its various expressions, is one of its most pronounced virtues. ‘Best Friend On The Payroll’ is in fact one of my favourite songs from the album, possessing a wry and subtle humour that the others songs don’t deliver. Two songs then that are criminally overlooked by Southpaw’s reviewers.
So it comes to ‘Southpaw’ – the title track, and the last song on the album. On first listen this, especially when compared to its epic counterpart ‘The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils’, seems contrived and clumsy. It becomes apparent with repeated listens though that nothing could be further from the truth, as the listener gradually begins to appreciate ‘Southpaw’ as one of the most majestic and profoundly moving songs of Morrissey’s career. It is the structure of the song that gives it its strength, and is a linchpin of his prowess as a songwriter. The song opens with a spectral hint of the barren epic that is going to unfold, giving a scant one-minute taste of the haunting guitar that is ‘Southpaw’s’ motif before breaking out into what appears to be a very typical Southpaw Grammar track. The guitar picks up pace, the snappy percussion takes hold and Morrissey begins relating the tale of another lonely young mother’s boy. The true beauty of this song only unfolds though when this facade falls away and the raw emotional undercurrent is exposed once more. A duel ensues between bursts of the Morrissey-by-numbers and periods of this desolation that cut right into the heart of Southpaw Grammar and there can only be one victor. At 3:20 the song suddenly breaks, and the superficiality of the song dies instantly, replaced by an immediate personal plea: ‘There is something that you should know... the girl of your dreams is here all alone’. This melancholy mantra is threaded through the heart-rending wasteland of the bleak instrumentation until the crushing reality of utter abandonment seems too much for Morrissey, who finally fades unobserved into the music and leaves the band to masterfully play out this tragic masterpiece. One of the most truly dark Morrissey songs, and a personal lament by Morrissey to the inescapable sadness that haunts him. A remarkably powerful song to finish with, and the perfect closer to a painfully underrated album that still has much to offer.