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Fair to Maudlin

  Morrissey: You Are the Quarry

 

Attack/Sanctuary, 2004

Rating: 3.6

 

    The Magnetic Fields: i

 

Nonesuch, 2004

Rating: 3.4

 

 

Posted: May 28, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Those who complain about the excessively high misery quotient in Morrissey's work steadfastly miss the point of his catalog. Songs like "Girlfriend in a Coma" or "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" have never been merely about their surface loneliness and despair -- the existential whining on which his detractors tend to fixate. His best work, both with the Smiths and as a solo artist, has always hinged on wit and a literate sensibility as much as through the simple connection forged between like-minded loners. (With the Smiths, the contrast between Morrissey's lyrics and the band's bright power-pop added an extra layer.) Morrissey certainly didn't invent the practice of minutely detailing the topography of alienation, but at his peak he codified it into an art form that few of his peers, and few if any of his followers, could match.

Those followers, for better or worse, include the many earnest missionaries of the regrettably named and ill-defined "emo" movement, whose brigades have been busy churning their every unfiltered thought, hang-up and tortured diary entry into anthem fodder for pierced and tattooed outcasts. These largely interchangeable acts have diluted the waters a bit, which may explain why Morrissey's return -- it's been seven years since his last album -- has been anticipated so eagerly in some quarters. The prospect of a master of the form coming back to show the punk kids how it's done is certainly a promising one.

Sadly, those kids won't learn much from You Are the Quarry, Morrissey's first proper album since 1997's Maladjusted. Despite the intervening years, Quarry sounds cut from exactly the same cloth as the last couple of Morrissey albums, which is to say that at best, it represents a bit of a holding pattern and at worst, it continues the slow artistic decline begun with 1995's lackluster Southpaw Grammar -- and which has been in evidence, to an extent, ever since his solid solo debut, 1988's Viva Hate. (Like David Lee Roth, Morrissey started strong out of the solo gate but has never quite found a collaboration to match the lightning-in-a-jar spark of his first and most famous.)

This isn't to say that Quarry is, to borrow from one of its songs, a crashing bore. The hilarious "I Have Forgiven Jesus" is a durable Morrissey reflection, although it's hard to wring much melody from a line like "I have forgiven Jesus / for all of the love He placed in me / When there's no one I can turn to with this love." "Come Back to Camden" and "First of the Gang to Die" are pleasantly melodic numbers that recall past solo glories, as does "Irish Blood, English Heart," which combines a bit of wordy political venom ("I've been dreaming of a time when to be English / Is not to be baneful / To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful") with a workable melody and an admirable show of self-esteem ("There is no one on Earth I'm afraid of").

But for every agreeable number (all of which echo with familiarity), there's a bloated screed like "America is Not the World" ("Don't you wonder why in Estonia they say / 'Hey you, you big fat pig?'"), or a lyrical and musical trifle like "Let Me Kiss You" and the promising but slight "I Like You." In fact, the closing "You Know I Couldn't Last" plays out like the whole album in miniature, building toward a sweeping, dynamic moment that never quite comes. Given that Morrissey's been saving lyrics and melodies throughout his hiatus, Quarry doesn't bode well for his long-term growth as an artist. But if it never quite hits past heights (even the comparatively lower heights of his early solo career), it doesn't plumb any new depths, either. As Morrissey albums go, it inhabits a comfortable (at times too comfortable) middle ground; a bit disappointing after so long an absence, but also as comforting and familiar as a faded Smiths T-shirt.

Stephin Merritt, the man behind the Magnetic Fields, is another songwriter known for doling out intelligent slices of drollery and depression in equal measure. Merritt's not been as dormant as Morrissey the past few years, although his best-known vehicle (he's also active in the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies) has been silent since 1999's 69 Love Songs, the three-disc magnum opus that brought the relatively underground Merritt a new level of attention.

The Magnetic Fields' new release, i, will certainly be judged by many according to the standard set by 69 Love Songs. This is, of course, a flimsy measure: i sports a different sound, for one thing, eschewing synthesizers for stately cello, guitar, sitar, piano, harpsichord and drums. There's also no overriding theme, unless one counts the fact that all of the songs begin with the letter "I" (a connective thread whose significance even Merritt has downplayed). And by sheer dint of its size, i doesn't sprawl across as many musical genres as its predecessor.

But i is connected to 69 in one key way: It feels largely like an exercise in craft, as opposed to the meaningful catharsis and expression of art. Songs like the sprightly yet morose "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" and "If There's Such A Thing as Love" display flashes of cleverness and an attention to melody, but the album ends up feeling artificial. That's partly a consequence of Merritt's songwriting style, steeped in traditional American pop touchstones including the Brill Building sound and post-WWII pop; the vintage tinge only reinforces the sense of emotional distance imparted by Merritt's droning vocals (although his range has certainly improved) and an air of cultivated gloom on numbers like "I Was Born" ("Growing older is killing a child / Who laughed and smiled at anything").

i is a well-crafted work with its share of strong moments, even if its impressive attention to craft holds the listener back from emotional investment. It's a judgment call whether that's preferable to the case of You Are The Quarry, which suffers from the opposite condition -- Morrissey's sincerity is never in doubt, although his ability to spin it into a memorable song the listener can connect to has diminished.

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