Morrissey is modern pop's most creative masochist. From the start, the Smiths' singer and lyricist knew how to turn self-loathing into a virtue — by redeeming it with humor. Now after three U.S. albums establishing that M.O., this double package picks up the loose ends of the Smiths' career and gives Morrissey's character new depth. Only seven of the twenty-four songs are new. The rest are singles, B sides and castoffs. But Morrissey's sharply defined character, the flowing melodies of guitarist-songwriter Johnny Marr and the precise production ties them all into a finely detailed whole.
In terms of sheer directness, Morrissey has definitely outdone himself on this album, kicking off side one with "Is It Really So Strange?" an open invitation to punch him, kick him and break his spine. Of course Morrissey delivers such declarations totally deadpan. In fact, his withering, overdramatic vocal style has become his greatest comedic tool: the more he moans, the more you'll howl.
Upping the deadpan approach significantly is Johnny Marr's earnest music. Gorgeous acoustic-driven numbers like "Ask" and "William, It Was Really Nothing" invite a refreshingly undefended rush of emotion. A few songs do disappoint musically, like the aimless "These Things Take Time." But generally Marr's music proves as durable as Morrissey's persona.
Interestingly, what really makes that persona hold up has less to do with the obvious — Morrissey's humor — than the heavy dose of desperation he reveals behind it. Morrissey's sarcasm may lend him an air of self-awareness, but on another level he communicates feelings of deprivation deep enough to make those lyrical exaggerations seem absolutely literal. No small wonder, then, that audiences identify so closely with Morrissey. He speaks for the masochist in all of us.