Morrissey – California Son

morrissey-california-sonCALIFORNIA SON, Morrissey’s twelfth studio album, is a collection of covers including a few familiar old classics and some maybe lesser known American protest and social justice songs from the 60s and 70s. Morrissey and his band never shy away from imaginative musical arrangements, often seeking out unusual instruments, and there are influences here from New Orleans, the old-time crooners and a touch of Broadway. No doubt this is a nod to his recent sell-out residency at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City (NYC).

The album opens with Morning Starship, the 1973 song by Jobriath. Morrissey has talked about covering this song for many years, and his version does not disappoint. He strips back the glam rock just enough to emphasise his wide range of vocals. It is an uplifting track and was well received when he sang it live on Broadway.

Next up is his version of Joni Mitchell’s Don’t interrupt the Sorrow, a song about women standing up to male dominance from her 1975 The Hissing of Summer Lawns album. Originally a folky song with lots of hand drums it is given the full Morrissey crooner treatment. Now in his 60th year, Morrissey seems to be embracing the role of modern-day crooner and it is a sound that repeats on several tracks throughout this album, not least on the very good Wedding Bell Blues on which Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong adds backing vocals.

Morrissey is never one to shy away from a song with a powerful message and chose to include the 1964 Bob Dylan song Only A Pawn in their Game, written following the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The message in this song is that the killer was as much a victim or “pawn” of the elites in power as was his victim. The song was sung at the rally where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. It’s an interesting choice, as is his excellent cover of Days of Decision. This is taken from the 1965 Phil Ochs album Ain’t Marching Anymore, with its lyrics: “you can do what’s right or you can do what you are told.” Maybe in these choices, Morrissey is encouraging the listener to look at the lessons of history and to question things a little more?

Buffy Sainte Marie’s Suffer the Little Children is given the full Broadway treatment with big instrumentals and hand clapping. Buffy, in an interview, said she loved it.

There are very good versions of Carly Simon’s When you close your eyes and Dione Warwick’s Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets. Gary Puckett’s Lady Willpower is also very well done. Tim Hardin’s eulogy to his friend Lenny Bruce, Lenny’s Tune is perfect for the melancholic signature sound of Morrissey, and whilst this version is not as haunting as the Nico cover it does justice to the original.

Roy Orbison’s It’s Over stays true to the original and is one of the best tracks on the album. He closes with Melanie Safka’s 1971 Some Say (I got Devil). The vocals here are excellent and the addition of instrumentals on what was originally an acoustic guitar ballad gives the song new depth.

There really is not a bad track here but the real gift of this album is that it brings to a new generation a selection of protest songs about freedom, social justice and liberty that have a message relevant to today. It encourages you to seek out the original recordings and the stories behind them. Morrissey is not afraid to try new genres, or of working with material that others might now find too controversial. It is why his music endures despite the controversy, the bad press, the lack of radio coverage and the constant personal attacks. He has already recorded an album of new material for release later in the year. Retirement does not appear to be on the horizon just yet.

Reviewed by Jacqui Cosgree

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