Morrissey is feeling miserable. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. But what may surprise some is that Morrissey’s new album, Southpaw Grammar, is his most powerful solo outing to date. Actually, solo album is a bit of a misnomer because, like Morrissey’s best work with the Smiths, Southpaw Grammar is actually a collaboration, his second record with producer Steve Lillywhite and guitarists and co-writers Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte. Together they have constructed an aural landscape of raucous, barreling guitars that makes Morrissey’s oh-so-familiar themes sound almost fresh.
While some may gripe that Morrissey could expand his worldview a bit, a Morrissey album that didn’t wallow in misery would be like Kafka without paranoia, Jagger without satyrmania or Seurat without dots. There’s something reassuring about the usual suspects being trotted out in brand-new suits. Sure, we’ve heard Morrissey insult the tiresome ex-lover before (“The Operation”) but not backed by such an exhilarating rave-up — one that begins with a gutsy two-minute drum solo. “The Boy Racer” fits squarely in the I-hate-you-because-you’re-beautiful subcategory of Morrissey’s oeuvre, and “Best Friend on the Payroll” can be filed under “I hate you because you take advantage of me,” but both songs have such irresistible hooks and relentless, jangly guitars that you hardly notice you’ve heard it before. “Dagenham Dave” is almost a love song — albeit about someone who is afraid of human (or at least homosexual) contact — but you’ll probably find yourself singing along nevertheless.
The most audacious cuts are two 10 plus-minute prog-rock epics. “The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils” is an eerie work that rewrites “Another Brick in the Wall” from the teacher’s point of view. Reminiscent of the Bowie-Eno ’70s collaborations, it starts out with a maddeningly repetitious orchestral riff that suddenly explodes into a blistering wall of grungy guitar noise. “Southpaw” is a bittersweet reminiscence of that moment when carefree childhood turns into adolescent alienation — set in a nostalgic swathe of freewheeling psychedelic riffing that evokes the era when rock itself was on the cusp between idealism and cynicism. Morrissey may be self-pitying, but at least he doesn’t sound pitiful.