All by his lonesome self, The Smiths’ founder might be expected to dig into his well-documented obsessions and really wallow. Surprisingly, the wailing soul’s solo debut is a tight, fairly disciplined affair. Viva Hate reveals the talents of its maker: innocent vocal hooks and vivid guitar riffs belie twisted lyrics full of the usual bizarre imagery, provocative observations and campy asides. Musically, Morrissey has picked up right where the Smiths left off — with the damaged orchestral-pop sound of Strangeways. Here We Come — and stayed there.
That lack of forward motion won’t disappoint some old fans: the most blatantly Smith-like cut on the record is already a British hit single. On “Suedehead,” Morrissey seems to romanticize an obscure Sixties subculture (skinheads due for haircuts, basically) to the tune of a chiming Byrdsy figure from Durutti Column guitarist Vini Reilly. “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me,” a potential chart rocket, is cut from the same Dusty Springfield-woven cloth as the Smiths’ “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby.” Of course, a Morrissey effort without a suicide ode or two would be like a George Jones album without any drinking songs. But “Angel, Angel, Down We Go Together” seems a bit much even by Big Mo’s morbid standards, and producer Stephen Street’s gloppy string-and-piano arrangements only intensify its air of leaden melodrama. Does Morrissey know about the lad who cried wolf?
Yet when he turns his peculiar muse outward and abandons tried-and-true musical approaches, the results are brilliant. “Bengali in Platforms” skewers elitist fashion (and fashionable racism) on a gilded stick, while “Little Man, What Now?” deftly portrays an aging child star’s ongoing public humiliation via the tube. Both songs convey a sense of compassion without stooping to cant or pathos, and both allow Vini Reilly to stretch out and noodle cosmically over mechanized percussion in the ineffable style of Durutti Column.
Overall, Viva Hale recalls the Smiths so consistently that it sounds downright conciliatory. Morrissey has paid his former band mates a perverse sort of tribute, when you think about it: he’s nearly equaled them on his own. Nearly.