An enjoyable romp through ‘60s and ‘70s AM pop that never feels forced or needlessly over-the-top.
Few artists have managed to be as polarizing to both haters and fans alike as Morrissey. If ever there were a case for separating the art from the artist, Morrissey’s would certainly rank high on the list. His increasingly absurd public pronouncements and questionable political positions have made it more and more difficult for long-time fans to continue to stand behind him. The fact that his music in recent years has been significantly lacking as well certainly doesn’t help matters. But he’s done himself no favors in the P.R. department by sporting For Britain Movement (a far-right organization founded by an anti-Islamist) pins on national television and challenging Axl Rose in the tour cancellation department.
Does any of this extra-curricular business even matter anymore? It seems that by now, Morrissey says and does whatever Morrissey thinks will be most successful in keeping Morrissey in the news. In other words, he seems to firmly subscribe to the “all press is good press” axiom, despite the political, social and philosophical ramifications his actions and statements might have amongst fans. All of this makes California Son all the more puzzling of a release.
Made up of inoffensive covers that are neither indicative of his previous praises (save, perhaps, the Jobraith’s “Morning Starship” which opens the album) nor seemingly thematically linked (though each track title could well be a Morrissey composition), it’s more of a collection of random covers one wouldn’t necessarily associate with the former Smiths frontman. From the 5th Dimension to Joni Mitchell to Phil Ochs to Roy Orbison, there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the song selection here. That said, it’s still a more enjoyable release than anything he’s managed in the last decade plus.
Mitchell’s “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” featuring a title he no doubt wished was his, relies on a smooth jazz arrangement stands in stark contrast to anything else in his back catalog. Meanwhile, his read of Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” is fairly straightforward, his cadence echoing Dylan’s and the arrangement falling just this side of grandiose. Coupled with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Suffer the Little Children,” these two (thankfully) represent the only politically-influenced compositions and only tangentially relate to our myriad modern problems. In other words, Morrissey reins in his more outlandish and, at times, insufferable artistic quirks in favor of an album that is nothing but listenable, if inoffensively so.
Throughout, he tends to remain Morrissey in both delivery and approach to the material. This falls by the wayside on his read of Orbison’s “It’s Over” as he struggles to not fall into a full-on Orbison impression. But if anyone is suited to Orbison’s morose operatics, it’s certainly Morrissey, his voice employing an overly-wide vibrato and just the right amount of Orbison-esque quaver. Should he choose to revisit the covers album territory in the future, Orbison’s catalog would be a prime choice for the Morrissey treatment.
“Wedding Bell Blues” is pure camp, Morrissey clearly enjoying the prospect of marriage to “Bill” in what seems to be a several-decades-too-late attempt at getting a rise out of the listening public with the prospect of gay marriage. Nonetheless, it’s still a fun workout that finds him lightening up and leaning back. He adopts a similar approach on Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s “Lady Willpower,” another overwrought ballad perfectly suited to Morrissey’s theatrical vocal acrobatics. After decades of being the king of mope and a willfully antagonistic public figure, it’s nice to hear him settle into his advancing age and embrace the campiness that has long circle around his persona.
There is nothing on California Sun that will help rewrite the history of Morrissey the artist, nor will it likely prevent him from any future indiscretions and questionable public pronouncements. But it’s nonetheless an enjoyable romp through ‘60s and ‘70s AM pop that never feels forced or needlessly over-the-top. In that, California Sun is something of a breath of fresh air for those Morrissey fans who’ve been struggling to maintain their allegiance in recent years.