Lead singer and wordsmith Stephen Morrissey (who goes by his surname professionally) is a man on a mission, a forlorn and brooding crusader with an arsenal of personal axes to grind. Drawing on British literary and cinematic tradition (he cites influences ranging from Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), Morrissey speaks out for protection of the innocent, railing against human cruelty in all its guises. Three of the songs on Meat Is Murder deal with saving our children — from the educational system (“The Headmaster Ritual”), from brutalizing homes (“Barbarism Begins at Home”), from one another (“Rusholme Ruffians”). The title track, “Meat Is Murder,” with its simulated bovine cries and buzz-saw guitars, takes vegetarianism to new heights of hysterical carniphobia.
A man of deadly serious sensitivity, Morrissey recognizes emotional as well as physical brutality, assailing the cynicism that laughs at loneliness (“That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”). Despite feeling trapped in an unfeeling world, Morrissey can still declare, “My faith in love is still devout,” with a sincerity so deadpan as to be completely believable.
Though he waves the standard for romance and sexual liberation, Morrissey has a curiously puritanical concept of love. He’s conscious of thwarted passion and inappropriate response, yet remains oddly distant from his own self-absorption. The simple pleasures of others make him uncomfortable, as if these activities were the cause of his own grand existential suffering. Morrissey’s uptight romanticism wears the black mantle of a new Inquisition.
In contrast to Morrissey’s censorious lyrical attitudes is the expansive musical vision of guitarist and tunesmith Johnny Marr. When these two are brought into alignment, the results transcend and transform Morrissey’s concerns. The brightest example is the shimmering twelve-inch “How Soon Is Now?” (included as a bonus on U.S. copies of Meat Is Murder). Marr’s version of the Bo Diddley beat and his somber, reptilian guitars propel Morrissey’s heartfelt plea — “I am human, and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does” — into the realm of universal compassion and postcool poetry. At this point, his needs seem real, his concerns nonjudgmental, and his otherwise pious persona truly sympathetic.