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. “It just wasn’t like the old days anymore,” sighed Morrissey on “Still Ill,” his lips sore from trying to reawaken some distant, dormant magic.
How times change. There’s no bittersweet beauty to be found in the reactionarism of today’s Morrissey, who just performed on “Jimmy Fallon” while wearing the badge of far-right political party For Britain. It’s the latest regrettable act in the charmless offensive he’s been escalating since 2017’s patchy, snarky Low in High School, as he continues to cheerlead for risible politicians, trot out his own inflammatory rhetoric, and dismiss dissenting voices as the product of myopic political correctness.
At this point, then, it’s hard to trust even an album as supposedly innocent as California Son. Its premise is pure fan service: Morrissey and some (barely audible) high-profile guests rework 12 of his favorite ’60s and ’70s songs by American artists, some of which flirt with ideas of social justice. The inclusion of those tracks feels pointed. Maybe they’re meant as proof that he’s still on the side of the underdogs, or as a sly suggestion that this is what real progressive politics sounds like. Maybe, as his manager said, there’s no agenda and it’s just supposed to be fun. If he’s right, it’s only to a point. It is more enjoyable to hear Morrissey in thrall to his passions than his peeves, but the toxicity of his public persona still poisons the well.
To be clear, a mawkish take on Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” about the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the racist killer manipulated into pulling the trigger, would be a bad choice for anyone: However generous your thoughts about the nuances of Dylan’s original or Morrissey’s intentions in covering it, framing racists as victims and excusing their hate crimes seems ill-judged at best and downright reckless at worst in 2019, when the president gladly goes to bat for white nationalists. But it feels particularly disingenuous for Morrissey to bemoan fear-mongering politicians who whip up prejudice, considering some of the unsavory public figures he’s fond of.
It’s a shame, because the best bits of California Son are as strong as anything Morrissey’s done in years, thanks to him and producer Joe Chiccarelli ditching Low in High School’s waspish spirit but keeping its zest for new sounds. The strongest songs pull out some inner strangeness from the originals you’d never really heard before. Buffy-Sainte Marie’s “Suffer the Little Children” is recast as a devilish, ramshackle stomp with bluesy keys and a hammily spooky vocal turn: “He keeps his nails clean/Did you think he was a boogeyman?” Morrissey adds a dark surrealism to Carly Simon’s “When You Close Your Eyes,” too, crooning over its twinkling electronics and lush harps like an eerie figure from a children’s fairytale. He and Chiccarelli turn the sci-fi fantasy of Jobriath’s “Morning Starship” into a space odyssey, filling its glimmering score with futuristic squiggles and crunching cosmic guitars, so it’s like being serenaded by the house band on an intergalactic cruiser.
When they play it safer, like on their workmanlike strum through Joni Mitchell’s “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” or the easy-listening wistfulness of their take on Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over,” the results are less remarkable. And while it’s a relief to be spared Morrissey’s bitterness, sometimes California Son feels too frothy, and he sounds like he doesn’t have any skin in the game at all. He and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong aim for playfulness with Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Day Blues” and land on cloyingly kitsch instead. Producer Stephen Street once marveled at how Morrissey would build himself up for studio takes like a dramatic actor; here, he’s taking his work about as seriously as a goofy “SNL” sketch.
The choice between listening to a misanthropic relative telling you old stories they love or hearing them grouch at the news is a no-brainer, but that doesn’t make some of the sugariness easier to swallow: As hard as Morrissey tries, it’s difficult to enjoy a celebratory gambol with him down memory lane when it’s full of potholes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the gloomiest moments that come closest to winning you over, like when he turns Tim Hardin’s “Lenny’s Tune” into an exquisite elegy at a doomy cabaret bar, or when he makes Melanie’s “Some Say (I Got Devil)” sound like the darkly dramatic last stand of a vengeful titan. When you hear them, you could almost pretend it was the old days again, even though you know it can never be the same.