Morrissey begins his third solo album, Kill Uncle (Sire/Reprise; CD, tape, bonus track on CD; 13), ready to throw up. ”Give us a drink or else I’m going to be sick,” he warns on the first track, in his precious and fey voice. But Morrissey is not one to get sick just anywhere. Instead he zeros in on what he describes as his friend’s ”frankly vulgar red pullover,” does the deed, and then deadpans: ”Now see how the colors blend.”
Oh, that Morrissey For more than seven years now — first as chief articulator of one of the top British bands of the ’80s, the Smiths, and then since ’87 on his own — Morrissey has made peculiarly thrilling art, managing to draw throngs of alienated fans by imagining endless acts of perversity. He prayed for a nuclear attack to brighten up a dull town in ”Every Day Is Like Sunday” (from his delightful 1988 solo debut, Viva Hate); he hoped to get hit by a double-decker bus to top off the perfect date in ”There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (from the Smiths’ 1986 album The Queen Is Dead). Such statements are meant to exact witty revenge against a world Morrissey considers too literal-minded and dreary even to consider joining. From his days fronting the Smiths (when he penned songs with such telling titles as ”Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”) to his solo albums, the pop star has carved out a uniquely antisocial persona. Ironically, he enjoys a deeper sense of connection with his fans than almost any pop icon since Bruce Springsteen — which just goes to show there’s nothing like shared revulsion to cement a great relationship. Morrissey’s appeal is not solely as King Grouch, though. With his deader-than-deadpan delivery and wittily contrary, Oscar Wilde-like lyrics, he is one of pop’s funniest front men. And he can be tender, too. Even his harshest barbs provide positive reinforcement to the disenfranchised, offering proof that an outsider’s view of life is valid, even noble. In Britain, such a philosophy helped make the Smiths major hitmakers, while in this country Morrissey became popular among fans of alternative rock, who wear their disaffection as a badge of honor even while they’re filling large concert halls and sometimes stadiums to hear their favorite bands.
Of course, another big part of the Smiths’ appeal was their oddly spirited music — written by the group’s guitarist, Johnny Marr, and built on startlingly bright acoustic guitar riffs and catchy choruses — which provided the perfect ironic foil to Morrissey’s moaning complaints. (Novices should immediately hunt down The Queen Is Dead, Louder Than Bombs, and the unexpectedly brutal live album ”Rank.”) The singer found another clever coconspirator, Stephen Street, to write the music that appeared on his first two solo albums (the second one was Bona Drag, last year’s hyper-hooky collection of miscellaneous singles). On this latest record, however, Morrissey shares most of the songwriting credits with someone new: Mark Nevin, of the erudite British folk- jazz group Fairground Attraction. It’s the first time Morrissey’s musical accompaniment has used a tinkling piano for its hooks, rather than a bold guitar; Nevin’s music is more woozy and sophisticated than Marr’s or Street’s, and often more difficult. Still, even when the album bogs down with four mewling ballads toward the end, repeated listens reveal an oddly queasy charm. And there are plenty of cuts like ”Our Frank” that recall the strange perkiness of early-’70s hits from the arty British group Roxy Music.
Morrissey’s new lyrics, though, take his gift for disgust to dizzying new heights. Morrissey has always been terrified, and therefore contemptuous, of human interaction; sex inspires the ultimate flinch. (In real life, he claims to be celibate.) Here he offers some of his most artful expressions of discomfort ever. In ”Driving Your Girlfriend Home” he presents a stark, almost cinematic vision of a woman crying over her awful relationship, a scene that causes Morrissey to react with blithe impassivity, as if to say, ”Well, what do you expect when you’re crazy enough to get involved with another human being?” Miraculously, in the chunky rocker ”Found Found Found,” the singer himself gets involved in a romantic entanglement, but it only leaves him pining for the comfort of his old isolation.
The most daring expression of Morrissey’s recoil from an ordinary life has to be ”(I’m) The End of the Family Line,” in which he goes further, savoring the chance to do his part in destroying the entire human species. Over a gorgeous melody he croons ”Fifteen generations of mine/All honoring nature/ Until I arrive.” With uproarious contempt he expresses his desire to see his family tree ”hacked into decline.” It would be a mistake to view such statements as nihilistic: For Morrissey, moping self-involvement is an act of life-affirming rebellion, a spirited challenge to society’s demand for coupling and procreation. Alienation, for him, is not a phase to be rescued from, but a sophisticated, committed philosophy, however painful. If nonfans find his music doomed, they’re missing his humor. Clearly, the guy is having a ball being so dismissive. And you need hardly become a snarling recluse to relate to his message. Morrissey’s songs play to the deep-buried part of all of us that, despite our relationships, must always be alone, and he embraces that isolation with warmth and even a strange sense of joy. True, the songs on this new album initially temper that joy. But in the long run the record will hook you and convince you that, as usual, Morrissey’s misery makes glorious company.