Morrissey has always worn his influences on his black-on-the-outside sleeves. For as much as he crowed about the New York Dolls and the Cramps in his youth, his music both with and without the Smiths has reflected more erudite lyricists with an overall lighter musical touch. For California Son, the Pope of Mope has picked 12 lilting tales of injustice and unrequited love by some of his favorite artists and re-orchestrated them for his voice, improving some and turning others into head scratchers.
The best here are the ones with adventurous arrangements. “Some Say I Got Devil” was originally an eerie, self-reflective folk number by Melanie, but producer Joe Chiccarelli has helped Moz turn it into a dramatic, almost Ennio Morricone–inflected expression of existential pain. Where Melanie sounded scared and disappointed, Morrissey sounds confidently resigned to a life of disappointment (no surprises there). Similarly, he and his band have beefed up Joni Mitchell’s arrangement of “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” — a hypnotic track off her underrated The Hissing of Summer Lawns LP — and Morrissey croons it like a modern easy-listening number, echoing Mitchell’s “you’re darn right” rejoinders with extra conviction.
“Suffer the Little Children,” a quivering, stuttering Buffy Sainte-Marie folk ballad, now sounds like a grand, Broadway number with hand claps and swaggering brass that comes off all the more over-the-top when Moz sings, “The Devil keeps his nails clean/Well, did you think he was a boogieman?” And his rendition of Roy Orbison’s challenging “It’s Over” is masterful, as he’s a rare rock singer his age who has such a range (and it should be noted that Moz is now eight years older than Orbison was at the time of his death.)
But some of the other numbers are more puzzling. The album has been marketed as a collection of protest songs, but scanning the love songs shows that’s not the case, and Morrissey has done no interviews so far to explain his viewpoint. Given recent controversies around his support of the ultra-conservative and exclusionary For Britain party, which have prompted a record shop in Wales to refuse to sell California Son, you have to question his motivations.
Nevertheless, here he is singing Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a retelling of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers’ assassination that somewhat absolves the killer’s racism because, the lyrics suggest, he was a tool of the political system. It makes you wonder what he wants listeners to take away from it. (And for the record, he sings it beautifully, tantamount in some ways to Stevie Wonder’s performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a strictly vocal perspective.) There’s also Phil Ochs’ “Days of Decision,” about standing up to societal oppression and Tim Hardin’s sorrowful (and, in Morrissey’s hands, infinitely more listenable) “Lenny’s Tune” about the death of Lenny Bruce, who died from a morphine overdose. Perhaps he’s pointing out that after 50 years, the world is still ill? What is clear from the recordings, though, is that the songwriters here all took humanist stances on the wrongdoing they’re addressing.
Even more perplexing still here, are the droppings of AM radio fluff that seem to mean so much to him. Gary Puckett’s “Lady Willpower” is an unusually bright and brassy request for a woman to give him her will (and it doesn’t stray too far from the original arrangement). Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” (with an assist from Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong) is still curl-lipped, saccharine yearning in Morrissey’s hands. But his take on Dionne Warwick’s “Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets” is peppy and easy — timeless pop comfort food — that makes the others feel a bit more at home.
Even without Morrissey explaining his motivations, the album is stil a look into his psyche. The track list suggests that he still thinks the world is headed for end times, that he still knows he’s unlovable, that he longs for excitement. They also confirm his tenacity and consistency considering he’s been talking about covering the Warwick number and Jobriath’s groovy, psychedelic “Morning Starship” for more than 25 years. And they show off his ageless voice, still a rich tenor that can slide up and down the scale with grace and melodrama. Most of all, the songs are each slightly skewed and often quite cynical. Perhaps the most revealing thing here is what we’ve always known: Heaven knows he’s miserable (and he’s OK with that).