Politics sneak up on you when you’re listening to Morrissey’s new album of cover songs, California Son — and that is its triumph. The pop star of “Irish Blood, English Heart” hasn’t repatriated; rather, the album title simply announces his affinity for American pop music of the Sixties and Seventies. Always an artist who delivers an intensely personal, even eccentric perspective, Morrissey uses the inevitable (though long-awaited) covers ritual for emotional and moral arousal.
The song selection suggests nostalgia, but producer Joe Chicarelli’s vibrant arrangements ignore the sound of the past while Morrissey’s dulcet pronunciations make each song palpable, even urgent. The opening track, “Morning Starship,” pays tribute to Seventies glam-rocker Jobriath (the late Texas-raised Bruce Wayne Campbell, an American David Bowie clone, which means weirder than most). It combines lullaby and declaration, sexual lust and beatific asexuality. Morrissey’s key change on the phrase “tapping gentle tapping” conveys the sensitivity of an individual awakening to others and to oneself.
Given that awesome intro, one might guess Morrissey’s shift into political awareness, yet his track listing is entirely unpredictable. The program goes from vague feminism (Joni Mitchell’s “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow”) to precise alliance (The Fifth Dimension’s “Wedding Bell Blues”); from familial rebellion (Tim Hardin’s “Lenny’s Tune”) to social independence (Phil Ochs’s “Days of Decision”) and all this anchored to Roy Orbison’s grand “It’s Over” because, as Morrissey sang on his 2014 B-side “Art-Hounds,” “My life is opera!”
Against the notion that pop music is trivial, Morrissey demonstrates its immediacy, like Bryan Ferry’s pioneering covers adventures from 1973’s These Foolish Things to 2007’s Dylanesque.
It is on Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” that Morrissey sends the album’s most electric shock. Chicarelli and Jesse Tobias’s arrangement harkens back to the keening sound of English and Irish ballads, evoking the tradition of struggle and protest (as well as the history of ethnic-racial conflict). Morrissey’s reading of Dylan’s lyrics, the round of common atrocities and grief, have astonishing resonance. But the jolt comes from the specific details — naming black civil-rights activist Medgar Evers and his 1963 assassination by a gunman hiding in a bush. It calls for Millennial listeners to join in on the shock and outrage, and restore their sense of humane, social purpose. It inspires a realization that, even today, our reception of political news responds to a power scheme — a political game that remains unchanged for both blacks and whites, the impoverished and the wealthily empowered.
Morrissey’s Dylan cover reminds us that part of the bard’s unfortunate legacy is that despite his genius and talent, his mostly liberal political focus has encouraged unbridled sanctimony among his followers. But Morrissey performs “Only a Pawn in Their Game” in a manner that shocks a listener out of moral superiority — that leftist self-righteousness and sanctimony that has always characterized Dylanology. This makes it California Son’s most audacious track.
Dishonest progressives keep trying to drag us back to the Sixties, but there’s an instructive YouTube clip of Dylan performing “Only a Pawn in the Game” at the 1963 March on Washington. His white liberal commiseration is obvious, but something in this performance goes wrong — it spreads dissatisfaction, equalizing American underclass turmoil. When Dylan gets to the lyric identifying Medgar Evers’s white racist assassin (“It ain’t him to blame”), he aims for the gathered crowd’s loftiest reflection. Yet the audience looks bored, possibly uncomprehending. Dylan’s audacity unexpectedly opened up a rift among the diverse civil-rights protesters — a tension between the conviction felt by black sufferers and the guilt felt by white allies trying to find some way of fitting their compassion to other people’s singular humanity.
Morrissey achieved a similar unsettling effect in his uniquely stirring “The National Front Disco” (1992), with its haunting refrain “We’ve lost our boy.” Such political daring, tied to humanist compassion, is what’s lost in today’s politicized culture, where division is both blamed and stoked. Morrissey’s Dylan cover points out that aberration. (Every song on California Son has its complement in Morrissey’s own original compositions.) These vintage songs date from what comedian Martin Mull called “the folk music scare of the Sixties,” which was primarily the legacy of Communist sympathizers such as Pete Seeger. But Morrissey rethinks that cultural heritage.
“Only a Pawn in Their Game” was collected on Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’ (which also featured the still-enraging civil-right alarum “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”). California Son arrives at a time when political virtues have become questionable.
Morrissey’s covers assert a large moral question — especially his very moving rendition of “Days of Decision.” Each track is a stronger recording than the not-really-radicalized Beyoncé even knows how to make. Would she risk, as Morrissey does, asking her black fans to consider themselves equal to white fans in their social distress? Tracks such as “Morning Starship,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” and “Lady Willpower” heal all division through the delight of pop art’s radical universality.
Defending the recent controversy roused by performing his covers while wearing a pro-Brexit “For Britain” badge, political artist Morrissey recently insisted that
the print media write as if someone is coming to get them. This aching nervousness brings on the vengeful and paranoid. . . . I straighten up and my position is one of hope. . . . Death always answers back; do not be a nobody; you have survived this far in order to make the remainder peaceful and funny; your very survival proves that you have a right; ignore the cold eyes of fascism; your life is Art.
So the beauty of California Son also sneaks up on you. Morrissey proves that what we used to think of as protest songs contain more than virtue-signaling and that they can live past their original moment. On each track, his expressive timbre captures that instant when a listener’s personal responsibility crystallizes — and shines.