Blur, Pulp, the London Suede. Monsters in England but mice stateside, these bands prompt the query “Why hasn’t any British band since Duran Duran scored more than fleeting success in America?” The answer may lie in the Morrissey Effect. His ’80s group the Smiths galvanized a certain crowd: collegians toying with disaffection who got a buzz off his weird, lush, angst-driven anthems rife with homoerotic hinting and romantic hurt. Dysfunctional charismatics fronted by a celibate vegetarian, the Smiths combated macho rock and pop piffle, and as memorably as anyone since James Dean, they deified adolescent alienation.
Going solo, however, Morrissey dropped ace guitarist Johnny Marr and any straight rock & roll appeal. The bride stripped bare, he became a freaky diva exuding exactly that unabashed artfulness that unsettles Yanks. It’s a Brit thing; we wouldn’t understand. Digging blank stars (Madonna) or “sincere” antiheroes (anything Seattle), we feel that Morrissey’s zeal to be both matinee idol and trembling poet is asking too much. And the fact that the best new U.K. bands are adamantly Morrissey’s heirs means that we largely ignore them.
Fourteen recent singles, B sides and live tracks, World of Morrissey unveils the lad in all his prickly glory. Concentrating on last year’s stellar Vauxhall and I and 1992’s even better Your Arsenal (on which producer Mick Ronson passed the glamrock baton to a fitting successor), World skirts some of the singer’s best darker work (“November Spawned a Monster,” “Suedehead”), but it’s hardly breezy. Everything throbs with Morrissey’s keynote, a passionate ambiguity that is riveting and disturbing.
Such a stance doesn’t stoke the masses, but the heat with which Morrissey indulges it explains his cult’s fire. He has fewer followers than the Smiths would have had, but they’re die-hards, jealously protective. An expert tease enamored of masks and artifice, Morrissey whets their fascination by constructing songs that are all about vulnerability — his thematic range (failure, loss, betrayal, secrecy) is determinedly narrow — but he hides as much as he reveals. Morrissey confesses, but in code.
His pompadour copped from English rocker Billy Fury, his gold-lamé shirt draped in gladioluses in homage to Oscar Wilde, Morrissey onstage crosses torchsong stylishness and rockabilly sass. His songs, too, are double pronged: surging guitar and languorous vocals. A concert delight like “You’re the One for Me, Fatty” flaunts Morrissey’s ’50s fixation — he stutters like Buddy Holly — and a cover of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” underscores his passion for silver-screen fantasy. The Moorish guitar and swirling sax of the new “Whatever Happens, I Love You” prove his flair for catchy melodies; the current single “Boxers” shows that Morrissey is nearly peerless in constructing an aesthetic of embarrassment. “Losing in front of your home crowd/You wish the ground would open and take you down,” he croons, and again, it’s a triumph of mixed attitude — part compassion, part guilty thrill. And adding to its perverse pleasure, the tale of woe is eminently hummable.
“Billy Budd,” “Spring-Heeled Jim” and “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” both skew and celebrate fools for love, the last featuring a boy aswoon for London’s ’60s gangsters the Kray brothers. “Sister I’m a Poet” also creams on “the romance of crime,” and with “Jack the Ripper,” Morrissey achieves the ultimate equation of desire and torture: Its hurt-me/love-me masochism is definitive. All T. Rex bounciness notwithstanding, “Certain People I Know” mocks its target (“their clothes are imitation George XXIII”); “We’ll Let You Know” flourishes similar condescension in its use of the royal first person, but Morrissey implicates himself in its defiant, damning finale: “We are the last truly British people you’ll ever know.”
For Morrissey and the bands that have followed in his elusive footsteps, British is both epithet and honorific — it’s the mark of misfits in brilliant disguise, lost boys charging backward but relentlessly into the spotlight they pretend to scorn.