Morrissey's lyrics have become as much of a trademark as the iconic quiff he sports. Dry, critical, sneering and defiant, he has been pop's favourite, much-loved outcast for many years. His skills as a songwriter are highly revered, so today I take a look at his creative signature style, and examine exactly why we need his voice today as much as we ever did...
It was in May 2009 that an academic from the University of St. Andrews - Dr Gavin Hopps - attempted to put into words the value and immensity of artist Morrissey's lyrical talent. Famed since his early days with The Smiths as a man who could comb through the ugliest parts of society and turn what he finds into something ethereal and poetical, the artist has always made an impact with his songwriting talent. Hopps himself went as far as to compare Morrissey to some of the greatest names in literature - including Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Philip Larkin. Many of the singer's supporters would agree.
In reality it's not hard for anyone who has taken a look at Morrissey's musical career to see why his legions of fans across the world feel so connected to him as an artist. Especially now, when the music world appears to be so deeply veiled and censored out of a desperation for new artists to comfortably “fit in” and succeed, Morrissey stands out almost as some kind of “Patron Saint” of the outcast, voicing his condemnation of a hostile world into verses and choruses that have captivated generation after generation. It's a legacy the artist is still building upon today, even with his latest release, I Am Not A Dog On A Chain (2020, BMG) where his trademark cynicism and wit is still hugely evident in his lyrics, time not having watered down his style or passion.
Mauled by the voracious mainstream media for many years, it appears to be lost on the critical journalists from presses like NME and The Guardian that it is exactly that which they criticise that has made his songwriting so alluring to many of the legend's fans. Morrissey points fingers, condemns and pulls-apart society at the seams; an unforgiving storyteller that never relents in holding up a mirror to the world's misdeeds. Indeed, maybe that's why some of his critics appear unrelentingly hostile – nobody likes being the foe or antagonist in a narrator's story.
Whilst many artists in the pop sphere safely rely on tried and tested, formulaic topics such as relationships, break-ups and romance, Morrissey often curtails these emotional human aspects in favour of traversing the uneven landscapes of political commentary, animal welfare, inequality, police brutality, sexuality, and loneliness. He often stands as a rare lone voice - broaching subjects few others would dare - lamenting at the world, often using his black humour to depict these subjects in his art. The ultimate anti-establishment artist, Morrissey has become an icon for the individual, those longing to stand apart.
While viewed by many as one of the music world's greatest lyricists, sitting snugly amongst other highly lauded songwriters such as Lennon, McCartney, Cohen and Dylan, it isn't just the words that have made Morrissey the artist that he is: there's his style, the vocal delivery, the melodies, the persona. Those elements, working together, have helped to build him into one of the most significant artists of his time, but few would deny that his unique lyrics were the springboard that helped The Smiths – and later his solo career - explode into the stratosphere, his audiences across the UK, and later the world at large, lapping up the unique expressions, dry humour and style that he made very much his own. Morrissey may have come across as a shy, timid soul when
interviewed for TV (particularly in those early years) but he owns himself completely in song; the creative field obviously allows any inhibitions to break and his feelings to flourish.
Whether it's through the sombre and heart-wrenching emptiness he encompasses in 2006's memorable, Life is a Pigsty; his anger at the treatment of animals in the classic 1985 track, Meat Is Murder or the indignation at the political climate in 2004's Irish Blood, English Heart, Morrissey has been making a monumental mark as one of the most significant songwriters of our time.
In a way, Morrissey has paid a price for being one of the few outspoken artists out there, one of the voices who constantly challenges the narrative, who seeks change and who upsets the status quo. Maybe some who dismiss his views try to “separate the art from the artist” by enjoying the music and disregarding the man himself - but for those diehard fans who have followed him through the years, the issues are inseparable. His lyrics and who he is are one and the same. Morrissey has never loosened his grip on his views, either on stage or in interview, and it is that which sets him apart from his crowd-appeasing counterparts and which gives him the status he has earned. He doesn't play to please – he tells it as it is, and for those who appreciate bold truth in these uncomfortable times, that is more than enough. It always will be.