Some covers are better than others
Oh, Morrissey. Everyone’s favorite problematic intellectual. From the second The Smiths hit the scene in 1984, he’s been held in the highest regard by music critics and fans alike. His sensitive asexual image stood in stark contrast to the dominant aesthetic of rock at the time, which helped propel British indie music into the mainstream and instigate a cultural shift which would lead to the rise of Britpop in the early ‘90s. Recognized for his unique crooning style of singing, complemented by his ability to craft engaging and relatable lyrics, he is generally regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of rock music. Off the stage, he’s known more for his penchant for stirring controversy; whether it is referring to the Chinese as “subhuman” for their questionable track record on animal rights, or for endorsing outwardly Islamophobic politicians, he never manages to stay out of the headlines for long. For someone who seems to resent being the center of attention, he has minimal reservations about making himself a topic of discussion. Much like the man himself, his musical output is consistently inconsistent, so it’s entirely on brand that he would release an album like California Son.
Much like Christmas albums, cover albums are typically viewed as cash grabs, or even worse, a desperate attempt to cling to relevancy after an artist has run out of things to say. However, to Morrissey’s credit, it does seem as though this album is coming from a genuine place of affinity for music; he is covering these songs because he loves and appreciates them, and wants to introduce them to his audience. Most of the songs on this album fall into two categories: folk and chamber pop deep cuts; if he were trying to move units, he would have churned out an album of uninspired meme and dad rock songs, like Weezer.
The song which has received the most attention is track seven, “Wedding Bell Blues,” originally by Laura Nyro, featuring backing vocals from Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. This song aims for a Zombies-esque orchestral pop vibe but ends up sounding closer to some King Harvest AM radio kitsch. Armstrong’s contributions are limited to harmonies (usually in the form of “oohs” and “aahs”) and repeating the last couple of words in a sentence; his vocals, though distinct, aren’t that compelling when divorced from a tapestry of power chords.
His choice to open the album with “Morning Starship,” originally recorded by LGBTQ+ icon Jobriath, is questionable at best. Putting the Fallon debacle aside, the track is simply a mess; the song is an experiment in maximalism that has gone horribly wrong. Dirty stabbing synth chords clash with harpsichord plucks over a muddled backdrop of limp, jangly clean guitars strums which are occasionally intruded upon by hyper-compressed electric guitars; just when you think it can’t get any busier, he manages to squeeze a chorale arrangement into the chorus. If the aim here was to emulate or modernize the ostentatious glam rock aesthetic that Jobriath embodied, it missed the mark entirely.
Personal opinions aside, it is impossible to deny Morrissey’s objectively impressive vocal prowess. His crooning might sound out of place on most of these songs, but when it fits, it really fits. With a little help from singer/songwriter Laura Pergolizzi, he manages to pull off a fantastic rendition of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over.” The relative sparseness of the verses morphs beautifully into some over-the-top instrumentation in the chorus, adorned by church bells and strings. The only real critique here is the squeaky clean production, which robs the track of a sense of intimacy (which is a hallmark of Orbison’s music.) But there’s no doubt that he would kill it at karaoke night.
His version of “Lenny’s Tune,” originally recorded by Tim Hardin, is another decent cut. It’s a more faithful rendition, and Morrissey certainly knows how to conjure up the lonely tortured atmosphere similar to the original. Unfortunately, much like the Orbison cover, it feels much too sterile and tightly composed. Hardin’s version is played with the reckless abandon of a man in the depths of his grief, pounding away sloppily on a piano, just trying desperately to get the emotions out; despite Morrissey’s best attempt, there is just no way to reproduce that adequately.
Cover songs are always risky; cover albums are downright dangerous, and often regarded as a low point in an artist’s career. Well received cover albums are few and far between; for every Teen Babes from Monsanto, there are one-hundred and one Sid Sings.
There are two routes one can go when attempting a cover: stay faithful to the source material and hope you do it justice (such as Nirvana’s masterful rendition of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”) or try to pull off a wild reinterpretation and claim it as your own (for instance, Devo’s innovative take on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”). With California Son, Morrissey tried to walk both roads but ended up going nowhere. Ultimately, this album is going to appeal to diehard Morrissey fans, and that’s about it. While there are certainly some bright spots on the record, the low points weigh it down too much to be enjoyed as a whole.