Pitchfork review Swords


Junior Member
Quite a well-written piece, I must say, and, though we may not like it, the writer does make some good point as to Morrissey's future.


[Polydor; 2009]

Call me morbid, call me pale, but when the news of his onstage collapse twittered and flickered across the screens of the world the other night, I couldn't help but relish the way the flame of the Morrissey Myth seemed to flare briefly back into gaudy life. You see, as Swords, mopping up of the stray B-sides and bonus tracks from the comeback years, suggests, Morrissey now has a dilemma: Following group glory, solo vindication, political notoriety, sullen exile, and dramatic revival, what on earth does he do for an encore?

It's not as though he can comfortably retire to civilian life. David Thomson once wrote of how fame had condemned an elderly woman to live out her days "sequestered in the cathedral called Greta Garbo." By contrast, the young Steven Patrick eagerly triple-locked the door and then tossed away the key upon entering the gothic mansion called Morrissey. But, self-condemned to the stage, are his 50s to be an ever decreasing circuit of provincial theaters, hawking threadbare B-sides? I'm not cynical enough to suggest that the fall was psychosomatically stage-managed, but you can see how the suggestion of a final savage spotlit exit might spice up the prospect of a Saturday night in Swindon.

I suppose the elegant option would be to retreat to some Tuscan villa or Parisian hotel, like Dirk Bogarde or Louise Brooks, and compose his perfectly poisonous memoirs. Or he could fade to gray in Vegas residency, crooning guttering torch songs to senile old Smiths fans. He could even return triumphant to his homeland which is eager at last to embrace him as an iconic, harmless old English eccentric, become a chatshow fixture, and accept a knighthood.

In the MGM biopic that he has always been reshooting in his head, the Swindon swoon makes a much better opening scene for the closing chapter of The Morrissey Story. Of course, he has been announcing the murderous urgency of life since he was a boy, but the best tracks on Swords seem designed to provide the perfectly piquant soundtrack. "The Never-Played Symphonies", perversely tucked away originally on second CD and 12" of "Irish Blood, English Heart", when it's finer than several recent singles, finds our hero reflecting from his death bed. Consumed by regret, sighing over a stuttering player piano, he doesn't see the glory, wealth, or adulation, only the never-laid and the never-played: those errant hearts and songs never now to be captured.

Similarly, "Christian Dior" addresses a fellow "lionized maverick," and sympathizes with a life hemmed-in by style. Musically the song is another humdrum strummed waltz, but the image of what might have been stirs him to heights of falsetto, hysterically overcompensating for the lack of drama in the tune. "Sweetie-Pie", a rare co-writing credit for keyboard player Mikey Farrell, is more satisfying. Morrissey's voice is warped and pitchshifted, tossed and submerged amid a vortex of effects, as he delivers a fierce last plea for deliverance, before disappearing beneath the waves.

But elsewhere the music offers the singer too little to work with. On "Good Looking Man About Town" Alain Whyte tries to spice things up with hints of raga, but unfortunately brings to mind Kula Shaker. "Ganglord" is the latest doomed attempt to repeat the dense swampy drone of "How Soon Is Now?". Lyrically, Morrissey casts around for subjects other than himself, without much success: both "Teenage Dad on His Estate" and (the iTunes-only) "Slum Mums" would like to report back fearlessly from the frontline of the modern underclass, but feel peculiarly dated, right down to the reference to the "Jensen Interceptor" as someone's runaround.

Once upon a time, asked what it exactly it was he does, Morrissey would reply "Well, I'm not bad with words." For a long time now, he's been a great pop star first, a great singer second, and a lyric writer somewhere around fourth or fifth. In the past of course, this needn't have been a problem. In his 50th year, Frank Sinatra could call upon songs of the quality of "It Was a Very Good Year". Morrissey naturally takes the precisely opposite tack, but without Brill Building industry to fall back on, he increasingly resorts to covering the heroes of his youth: David Bowie (a stilted live take on "Drive-In Saturday") and the New York Dolls (the iTunes-only "Human Being").

In the absence of a compelling partner, Morrissey must rely on his audience to bring him to life. Initial quantities of Swords come bundled with a bonus disc of songs recorded live in Warsaw, and what's striking is how even second division songs like "I Just Want to See the Boy Happy" or "Black Cloud" seem turbo-charged with intensity when performed live, how as a singer he is able to simultaneously celebrate, interrogate, and mock his own back catalogue, while basking in the spotlight and the crowd's devotion.

"It is the terrifying power of the true pop artist," Morrissey once wrote, in the sleevenotes to a compilation celebrating Klaus Nomi, Nico, Johnny Thunders, and Marc Bolan, "who seems to finally come into full bloom only at the hour of Death (as if Life is just not quite the point)?" And though there's often been something touchingly hypochondriac about a drug-free, vegetarian millionaire insisting at 50 that the hour of his death is imminent, the melodramatic possibility has now been raised that every show ever after might be his last, and that, like the nightingale in that Oscar Wilde fairytale, his song will grow ever sweeter as he approaches his doom.

— Stephen Troussé, November 3, 2009


Active Member
Not a bad piece, I agree. But doesn't it overfocus on career dramaturgy? Why does he need to go somewhere new? What's wrong with simply making another 2 or 3 very good albums, in much the same vein as hitherto? In the end, he will be judged primarily on the things he's already done anyway - additional production is likely to add to that rather than change it. The basic template has never changed much, but it keep finding new people.



Angel of Distemper
^ ^
Well, Morrissey's career has been pretty damn dramatic - I'm not alone in thinking of him as our Piaf. There's so much more here than a great voice - there's a great "myth."

Morrissey himself said that persisting on his current trajectory would show a lack of imagination; he may have been a bit flippant, but I agree with him. He has nothing left to prove, but it would be a bit sad to just fade away singing the same old songs. He's at that critical juncture that many pop stars find themselves in when a brilliant career starts to sputter: dare something new and risk alienating your audience, or stick with the tried-and-true and risk boring what's left of your loyal following. Morrissey, to his credit, is trying to spice it up while sticking with what he does best. It's worked so far, but how does anyone keep up such a pace?

I'm guessing that he would like to avoid sinking into a prosaic middle-age (poor Garbo - did she shop at the local Duane Reed?). I don't at all begrudge him his humanity, but I get the impression that Morrissey himself would like to keep things mythical: even though he shops with his mom at Selfridges, he still somehow manages to maintain his hard-earned, mysterious allure. I'm not sure how he does it, but it must cross his mind that it can't go on forever. All this Never-Played Symphonies/You Were Good in Your Time stuff says a lot about his sense of how things are winding down.

Yes, the magic of it all is that he keeps finding new people, that his audience is all-ages, that his appeal is timeless. Still, success has the fear of failure built into it, and he's been so strangely successful; the challenge of finally letting go, of ending the story must be daunting (to say the least).

Was Neil Young right? Is it better to burn out than to fade away?
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