I was a Smiths fan in high school, despite the horrible, dated production on most of their records. Johnny Marr (who most of you kids would know from Modest Mouse), was a genius guitarist in the age of synths, and their tunes were undeniable. But there's the Morrissey Problem.
I'm not British, so he's not representing any segment of my youth culture (unless you count too-smart-for-their-own-good, self-styled poet-types), and anyway, I came to the party about, oh, ten years too late to really identify with his political views.
Put simply, Moz (as his MOST pretentious fans refer to him) was about as irritatingly affected and pretentious as a singer could get, just shy of Bono on the self-importance scale. So why is it that I've kept listening to his records for so many years?
The Smiths aspect of the equation should be self-evident: Johnny Marr. I love the way he plays guitar, I like the way he integrates himself into the sound of a band, and I like the songwriting style. Plus, he gave Morrissey a foil, in two regards. Firstly, he pushed Le Pompadour into his best singing to match the sparkling, overchorused guitar work, secondly, the personality clash kept the frontman in line. Lennon needs a McCartney, Mick needs a Keef, and dear God, Morrissey needs a Marr.
Once he went solo, he still needed that strong collaborator. On his first two (admittedly wonderful) solo releases, it was producer Stephen Street, who, by virtue of his having worked with the Smiths in the past, understood the man's strengths. After a nasty falling out, his second official album, Kill Uncle (sans Street) was terrible. He teamed up with former Bowie sideman Mick Ronson for Your Arsenal, which was once again wonderful, primarily due to Ronson's ability to keep "The Hair" in check. However, since then, he's allowed his self-indulgence to overwhelm, and despite a few enjoyable moments per record (especially 2004's You Are The Quarry, he's slipped into middling irrelevance.
"But wait", you're thinking. "You're telling me all the reasons that Morrissey sucks, not why you've been listening to him all these years." Well, that's true. The last piece of the puzzle is the fact that he knows how to write a great hook and melody. "William, It Was Really Nothing", "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want", "Panic", "Girlfriend In A Coma", "Everyday Is Like Sunday", and "How Soon Is Now", among DOZENS of others have instantly memorable hooks and melodies. Since most of those titles are the hook, I can barely type them without singing them. Sure, they're beautiful melodies often delivered in the most affected, self-important way possible, but it's still a beautiful melody. Give it to someone else with a half a way with a tune, and let them sing it. It will STILL be a beautiful melody. The fact that a song like, for instance, "London", has such a good melody AND such interesting guitar playing is almost criminal. It would still be a great song with either or... it's almost unfair that it's got so much going for it!
Obviously, my critique is biased toward the "Smiths" years. His solo efforts do seem to wallow in melancholy and hyper-literate moping, but, for example, in "Everyday Is Like Sunday" the soaring glide of the vocals over the synthesized music really gives the images a beautiful power. The lyrics are alright, the music is alright, but that vocal pushes it into another territory altogether, making it even more frustrating that so much of his recent work has seemed so truly bland.
So I'm going to maybe stop bitching about what a douche Morrissey can be. That's not to say I'm any less irritated by his navel-gazing narcissism, it's just that this whole grudging respect thing is harder than it looks. And I don't want to have to stop listening to "How Soon Is Now" any time in the near future.
[Incidentally, a close personal friend of mine does an amazing dance whenever Morrissey comes on the radio - arms straight up over the head, wrists together fingers dangling, a saaaad look on the face and a little mopey hip wiggle. It's like the saddest, most effeminate palm tree you've ever seen. It's called the "Morrissey Dance"]