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I’ll admit, when I first heard the news of California Son’s pending arrival, I scoffed. I tried to resist the siren song of “Wedding Bell Blues,” telling myself that a cover with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong couldn’t possibly be good. And Morrissey, well, I’ve long since given up on him, now that he’s a racist sack of garbage who hasn’t had a good album since 2005’s passable You Are The Quarry.
I was wrong. I was so very wrong. California Son is good in the worst way, like when your blood enemy accidently makes a really valid point. I don’t want to love this album. But I do. It’s a fine return to form for Morrissey, never feeling like a cash grab or the test run for a casino residency.
“Wedding Bell Blues,” is, of course, the standout, with Morrissey turning a lovesick woman’s lament into an anthem of queer desire, maintaining the male “Bill” while Armstrong’s nasally harmonies chime in at precisely the right moments to give the hints of a duet without the commitment. It’s a fascinating play with the audience; that “Suedehead” lilt we’ve been missing is back in full force.
The gloomy, cabaret-synth that propels Jobraith’s “Morning Starship” as the album opener gives us perhaps our best glimpse at the plasticine beginnings of Morrissey’s songwriting mythology, with lyrics like, “You’re in already, you might as well sit down and stay awhile.” Jobraith died in 1983, and it was Morrissey who personally oversaw the release of the Lonely Planet Boy compilation in November 2004. In Morrissey’s hands, it’s a worthy tribute.
The slow Irish march that underscores Bob Dylan’s “Only A Pawn in Their Game” adds so much glorious texture that it brings tears to your eyes. Hell, my husband, who would rather chew broken glass than listen to Morrissey, was floored. Similarly, his elaborate orchestrating of Joni Mitchell’s “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” is perfectly tender, with an ice-melting sax solo and underscored with breathy vocals from Ariel Engle of Broken Social Scene.
The big band arrangement of “Suffer Little Children” is stronger than Morrissey’s performance, which seems like it’s trying to keep up with something larger than itself. The lyrics were clearly an influence on “The Headmaster Ritual,” but this one fails to come together in his hands. “It’s Over” suffers from similar over-orchestration, feeling too much like Las Vegas karaoke in places. A shame, because Morrissey has that Roy Orbison vibrato down—it just gets ever-so-slightly lost.
Luckily, an uptempo “Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets” gets the balance right, driven by bright, poppy piano that drops out at exactly the right moments of sorrow. Morrissey singing Burt Bacharach? It’s such a workable combination that you wonder why no one thought of it in the first place.
Unfortunately, the album’s release was overshadowed by Morrissey’s performance of “Morning Starship” on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, in which he wore a pin with the logo of the Islamophobic For Britain party. His racist rhetoric once again superseded his talent, at the moment when we were ready to let bygones be bygones. What could have been a celebrated comeback of a once-talented artist who has been phoning it in for years instead became a reminder of why we all abandoned Morrissey in the first place.
And it’s all so baffling. Did you not listen to the lyrics of “Only a Pawn in their Game” when you sang them, Moz? Do you think that Buffy Sainte-Marie was praising the mom who “Teaches them that evil dwells overseas /or in mountains like they see on TV?” The music here is the music of the downtrodden, the overlooked, the once-unloved. How did that message not come through?
It’s a shame that Morrissey is so hell-bent on sabotaging his legacy, preferring to go down in music history as a cautionary tale rather than the songwriting and performing genius he once was. California Son was the perfect vehicle for his aging vocal range and his ability to infuse lyrics with a wry combination of sorrow and cheekiness; it’s fascinating to take apart and look into these songs and how they influenced him as he went from being bookish Steven to the iconic Morrissey.
“I love you so, I always will,” he sings on “Wedding Bell Blues.” That Morrissey we loved is gone, and this album, perhaps, is our last token of what once was, a reminder of what we have lost as fans. California Son would have been an essential record if he’d chosen our love over hate. But with who he is now, his fans cannot be blamed if they turn back to well-worn copies of Bona Drag rather than adding this album to their collection. He has no one to blame but himself.
Notable Tracks: "Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow" | “Only A Pawn In Their Game” | "Wedding Bell Blues"