Release Date: May 24, 2019
Record label: BMG
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Ever since the Smiths cut Twinkle's 1965 obscurity "Golden Lights" in 1986, Morrissey has exhibited a knack for curious covers. Usually, he saved other people's songs for the stage, sometimes sneaking a tune onto a B-side, but he never dedicated himself to covering his favorite tunes until 2019's California Son. The punning title indicates Morrissey's keen awareness of 20th century pop culture, but instead of celebrating the surf rock of the Rivieras, Moz is stuck in Topanga Canyon and Hollywood.
Like all misfits, the Smiths never seemed entirely comfortable in their own timeline. They clung to old relics: the photographs of niche idols and faded stars on their artwork, the lyrical hat-tips to Oscar Wilde and Shelagh Delaney, the music-hall notes and rockabilly riffs, even a name that was symbolic of an old-fashioned sturdiness. But the nostalgia was always undercut by the sense that though they dreamt of the past, they knew they could never bring it back.
Let's get the trigger warning out of the way: despite being a collection of 12 new cover tracks, California Son is still a record by the individual known as Morrissey. If his increasingly frustrating public statements, his lenient (at best) attitude toward honoring tour dates, or his associating himself with racist, far right political causes have forever put you off the ex-Smiths frontman's musical output, turn away now. There's nothing here worth the effort defending him over.
The unofficial line is that Morrissey has recorded a covers album to allow the music to speak for itself. What 'California Son' is saying is that it's not very good "I'm not sorry," Morrissey sang on his gangbusters 2004 comeback album 'You Are The Quarry', "for all the things I've said / There's a wild man in my head". His first record in seven years, it was an album that shimmered with pomp and swagger, stuffed with bejewelled riffs and lyrics by turns self-coruscating and beautiful (from 'Come Back To Camden': "Your leg came to rest against mine / Then you lounged with knees up and apart / And me and my heart, we knew / We just knew").
A week after Morrissey appeared on a late-night talk show wearing a badge in support of an anti-Islam, far-right minor political party (not to mention the preceding decade of contentious proclamations), it is impossible to hear a number of the covers on California Son in anything but a chilling light. Dylan's Only a Pawn in Their Game, about the US government's weaponising of poor white people in the civil rights movement, takes on a sinister tone. When Morrissey sings "You can do what's right or you can do what you are told," on Days of Decision, it resonates less as Phil Ochs's original appeal to fairness than a slimy warning against falling in line with political correctness.