Tuesday, September 20, 2022

David Stubbs - Morrissey: Viva Hate - Melody Maker - March 19 1988


Viva Hate (HMV)

Melody Maker, March 19th 1988

by David Stubbs

For too long, a faction around here feels, the fey, blithe Morrissey has been allowed to saunter through pop history unchecked, fawned upon even — and it was about time some of the chaps got together to administer a tarring, a feathering, and deposit him in the nearest ditch.

Faced with the prospect of putting Viva Hate into critical perspective, the Windsor Davies in us all, bulging with choleric indignation at the antics of Mr La-De-Da Gunner Graham, welled to the surface of many a soul around here, as they sharpened their pencils and scraped their hooves in readiness to proffer a sound critical kicking to our erstwhile hero. But I've always been renowned for my sense of fair play and it was to me, lingering modestly at the back of the pack, that the task of reviewing the record was eventually assigned.

And I say that through musically thick and musically thin, swoops and (appalling) lapses, this is Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey, essentially and necessarily, even to the point of self-parody. But then with Morrissey, who is about an exaggerated, blunt-edged sense of self, it's probable that self-parody is, and always has been, the point.

Musically, Viva Hate is mixed. What Simon Reynolds referred to recently as Stephen Street's "producer's sensibility" makes for some gorgeously appropriate settings, but also one or two deferential lapses into mere accompaniment. Best are the likes of 'Alsatian Cousin', in which Morrissey finds himself wheeling in and out of gullish guitars and frantic, airborne effects all pitched at a high level of anxiety, and the brief 'Little Man, What Now?' in which Vini Reilly's wavering, crystalline, almost unbearably poignant guitars open up vistas, and not only this once, for Morrissey's aghast reminiscences.

But then, 'Angel, Angel, Down We Go Together' is… um, a bit 'Eleanor Rigby'. I assume that the infamous strings are a signifier for a damp, abiding "Englishness". They may be an ennobling gesture — as Eldritch self-effacingly put it, "No guitars — that means it's an important song." The effect can be, as on 'Every Day Is Like Sunday', perilously close to those fatal nods at MOR sensibility that Pat Kane is so fond of. But of course, it is rescued.

For 'Everyday Is Like Sunday' is Morrissey, Morrissey, mordant, blunt, impetuous and incorrigibly nostalgic. We shall address presently this matter of Morrissey's fixation upon a period in his life which he appears to despise. "Trudging slowly over wet sand/Back to the bench/Where your clothes were stolen/This is the coastal town/ That they forgot to close down/Armageddon! — Come, Armageddon!" This is Alan Bennett in Southport.

Not all the songs, however, are so clearly about the recent past — both 'Alsatian Cousin' and 'Suedehead' snoop about the topics of infatuation shame, possibly squalor. But clearly, if there is an autobiographical, narrative line to Morrissey's lyrical career then we have reached the late Sixties (the forgotten star on What's My Line?, staring up from a teenage annual. Who can it be? Bobby Crush? Freddy "Parrot Face" Davies?) and then, the early Seventies, with 'Late Night, Maudlin Street' and 'Bengali In Platforms'.

Yes, the appalling 'Bengali In Platforms', quintessentially Morrissey, Morrissey, the Diana Ross-despising Morrissey, the unreconstructed maker of statements Morrissey, the champion of honest content over the vile and synthetic Morrissey, the bad critic Morrissey. This is just the kind of dumb song Morrissey would write, and the opening warble of "Bengali…/Bengali…/Bengali…/Bengali" is quite the most embarrassing… well, it's like your neo-Mannerist Dandy chum from university comes to visit you in the hols, you go down your local pub — sturdy, working-class pub — and in a loud voice in the middle of the tap room complains about the fusty odour before ordering Martini and sausage rolls. The song is a caring call to the sartorially inept Asian to "shelve your Western plans" and eschew that ghastly tank-top. It's not malicious, but it's appallingly patronising and deals with an outmoded stereotype. Much more appropriate, in 1988, to write from the snappily-dressed Punjabi's point of view about inept media attempts to get to grips with Banghra culture, and how they get it wrong. But that wouldn't be Morrissey. It would be too clever. For the essence of Morrissey is a certain clumsy audacity, an ill-advised boldness, impetuousity and indiscretion, to say nothing of a fine disregard for the new complexities of this particular generation.

If Simon Reynolds attempted pop lyrics, they would be impossibly qualified and opaque. Morrissey isn't quite that smart, so Morrissey is Morrissey. Hence the risible 'The Ordinary Boys': "Ordinary boys, happy knowing nothing/Happy being no-one, but themselves/ Ordinary girls, supermarket clothes/ Who think it's very clever to be cruel to you/ For you were so different/ You stood all alone/ And you knew/ That it had to be so." Aaargh! Of course, your first instinct is to stamp your feet and sing rugby songs to drown out this bilge but… somebody had to say it!

These lapses are marks of adolescence — like the nuclear bomb on the seaside resort in 'Sunday', like 'Hang The DJ' in the past, like the heavy-handed sarcasm of 'Dial A Cliché' and the soon to be infamous 'Margaret On The Guillotine' they work as "heavy" gestures, honest, self-pitying, self-seeking. They are Morrissey's essence-in-excess, the necessary flaws of stardom. As the lines go in 'Break Up The Family' — "The strange logic of your clumsiest line/Stayed emblazoned on my mind." But such rude moments are only occasional. Far and away the best, the key track on Viva Hate, is 'Late Night, Maudlin Street', profoundly retrospective, spoken through an abiding shuffle of monotonous rhythms, like endless doors or staircases, it refers back, in bitter-sweet, open vein, to 1972, the power-cuts, the oblivious contemparies, the Byronically exaggerated pain of the pariah.

It's all here, in measured terms, rising to a valedictory note of double-edged nostalgia. For the silent assertion here, and in all of Morrissey's work is that, grey and repressive as this lost world was, the inchoate, colourific entropy of the Eighties is worse. At least then you stood out, if only to be beaten up. For the Eighties, Morrissey reserves not perception but the radical impatience of 'Margaret On The Guillotine'. Detached from the general drift of the album and delivered in a scabrous tone, it's the kind of foolish, epic gesture that Morrissey is there to make.

It's tempting to say that we don't need Morrissey any more, that his ghostly, grey presence in the relentlessly gaudy pop terrain has faded as it has persisted. But Morrissey is needed, not as an ombudsman, or a figure of the Eighties but as a horrified figure against the Eighties, who has turned his back on the march of pop time as the last keeper of the sanctuary of self-pity, apartness, exile (today, the "extraordinary boys" are grey and listless, the "ordinary" boys are colourful, dynamic, chromium-plated).

And Viva Hate, a further act of simple faithlessness, is, its lapses withal, another great album by our last star, our last idiot.

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