Photo from morrisseyofficial.com
In music and film, there’s a certain sweet spot of nostalgia for the middle of the latter half of the 20th century, probably because so many people alive today have lived through it. Hollywood often loads its period pieces of that time, like Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice or Starsky and Hutch, with classic songs like “Afternoon Delight,” “Close to You” or “Stayin’ Alive.” But on California Son, Morrissey’s new cover album of 60s and 70s songs, he digs deeper than radio hits to repurpose for his own narrative use, choosing songs that have ties to our own historical moment.
These 12 cover songs come in the wake of Morrissey’s middling 2017 original release Low In High School. But where that album faltered, this album succeeds into breaking into the age of contemporary music releases. On California Son, Morrissey cherry picks tunes that explore the themes of public persona, politics and grieving the loss of love. Through his selection, he demonstrates how a good contemporary cover album should be executed: by shining a new light on overlooked and underrated yet culturally significant compositions.
Vocally, Morrissey glides over these covers’ melodies as smooth as ever, sometimes celebratory, sometimes mournful and sometimes disdainful. Following the triumphant surreality of “Morning Starship,” the opener, and Joni Mitchell’s mythic “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” the tracklist quickly shifts toward songs relating to political and social issues. Dylan’s “Only a Pawn In Their Game” from The Times They Are a-Changin’ leads off this section as a militant rocker, then Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Suffer the Little Children” laments the capitalist rat race over pounding piano bass and finally Phil Och’s “Days of Decision” closes it out, suggesting the world’s current politics are as crucial as during the mid-1960s.
“Only a Pawn…” and “Days of Decision” both share a theme by making reference to the civil rights movement in the American South. Dylan’s song recounts the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi and Och’s the 1964 murder of three other civil rights activists also in Mississippi (the basis for the film Mississippi Burning). Morrissey’s decision to include several songs that promote equality on his new album contrasts his recent decision to wear a For Britain Movement, a right wing British nationalist group, pin on his Jimmy Fallon performance. Perhaps Morrissey has taken a page from Kanye West’s release publicity book, but as far as the album goes, the songs he chose for it are far from reactionary.
Tying into these politically-charged covers, on the album’s closer “Some Say I Got Devil,” Morrissey mirrors himself in the lyrics, also attempting to gain perspective or illuminate his public persona, including his many controversial statements. So, he is undoubtedly aware of the strange dichotomy he’s lately been presenting. As a side note, hearing Morrissey adopt a Bob Dylan cadence is entertaining for any frequent listener, and I’d take Morrissey’s more expressive and ultimately superior cover of “Days of Decision” over Phil Och’s original any day.
As with any Morrissey release, there are a handful of songs about love, lost love and loneliness. Of the bunch, the strongest is the album’s opener, “Morning Starship,” which features Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear, who crafts a dense, jubilant and stellar atmosphere more taut than the original and reflective of his band’s own work. The cover does justice to the original version by Jobriath, whom Morrissey has focused on in the past, even compiling a posthumous Jobriath CD release in 2004. The song tells the story of a woman visiting a man in bed in the morning like a kind of reversed Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, “Without a word she said can I come in/and I said well, you’re in already/you might as well sit down and stay a while,” and ends with her leaving him behind to venture somewhere else. The narrator ultimately admits “She’s gone away what can I do/she took the keys/she’s got the clue,” but he ends up feeling grateful for her overall. The powerful synths and stereo guitar bursts anchor down Morrissey’s crooning to create the best highlight of the album.
California Son’s other emotion-based songs don’t quite match the raw energy of “Morning Starship,” but still deliver with the classic Morrissey treatment. Breaking up the political suite, he takes a crack at Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over,” with singer LP delivering a haunting, saccharine vocal intro that goes, “Your baby doesn’t love you anymore,” and stands out as the most transcendental moment from any of Morrissey’s guests. Also, the vocal climax at the end of the song matches any of Orbison’s many: “In Dreams,” “Crying,” take your pick.
“Wedding Bell Blues” featuring Billie Joe Armstrong and Lydia Night improves with every listen, faithful to the original by The Fifth Dimension, a band more famous for its The 40-Year-Old Virgin-featured hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” The cover of Gary Puckett’s “Lady Willpower” is an electric, funk song with a barrage of horns and pleas for love. Lastly of the love-ballad-type songs, Morrissey’s cover of Tim Hardin’s “Lenny’s Tune,” originally written for and about Lenny Bruce, fulfills the album’s quota for the heaviness of grief and loss. The narrator mourns a friend with desperate lines such as, “I lost a friend and I don’t know why.”
Several songs on this cover album were originally penned and sung by women, and Morrissey holds faithful to them, embracing the messages of the originals. On “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” which features a soulful saxophone solo, he sings “Anima rising/Queen of queens/wash my guilt in Eden/wash and balance me.” On “Wedding Bell Blues,” he’s asking some guy named Bill why he hasn’t married him yet, growing impatient. Dionne Warwick and Carly Simon songs both make appearances, maintaining their respective wisdoms about love. And finally on the closing track, Morrissey recontextualizes Melanie’s lyrics, “Some say I got devil/some say I got angel/but I’m just a girl trouble,” comparing her search to be publicly understood to that of his own. Morrissey chooses to embrace his anima and diversifies his body of covers to feature almost as many female voices as male.
On California Son, his first cover album and twelfth solo album overall, Morrissey breathes fresh air into a group of semi-obscure but potent songs about love, equality, acceptance and loss. His performance leaves nothing to be desired, morphing his own vocal style to fit every song, similar to what Bob Dylan did on Shadows In the Night. Joe Chiccarelli’s rich production accompanied with a solid cast of collaborators elevates this Morrissey effort into the modern age of music releases, a step outside the comfort zone of his last few albums. In a statement before the record’s release, collaborator Laura Pergolizzi a.k.a. LP said that Morrissey “is well versed in so many genres and knows deep cuts of artists I thought I knew so much about.” And after several listens of California Son, I’m inclined to agree with her judgement.
By Luke Furman