11 October, 2014

The Morrissey reissues

Reissue, repackage, repackage! Slip them into different sleeves.
Yes, it’s so easy, isn’t it?

The release of the 20th anniversary edition of Vauxhall and I completes a slightly ad hoc series of reissues of Morrissey’s 20th century solo albums. In classic Morrissey fashion, these reissues follow neither a standard reissue/remaster campaign, nor an expanded edition model. Instead, what we get is more along the lines of a “director’s cut,” approach with some albums surviving mostly intact and others bearing only a passing similarity to the original versions – not that there was any particular outside interference on the originals. There is a fair dollop of rewriting history here, or at least, ‘This is what we should have done.’

So, is it worth re-buying your Morrissey collection? Or, if you’re starting one, which are the better versions to get? What follows is one fan’s assessments, in order of reissue.

I should declare from that outset that having first heard and bonded with (for that’s what you do when you’re a Morrissey fan) the original releases, I will be slightly biased towards the originals as being the ‘real’ versions.

Southpaw Grammar 1995/2009
Southpaw Grammar was Morrissey’s first album after completing the contract with EMI that was originally signed by The Smiths in 1987, and the beginning of a nomadic relationship with record companies that continues to this day*.  When it was originally released on the RCA label which was then owned by BMG, Morrissey indulged himself in making the album appear as much like a 70s RCA release as he could. Although the artwork has been completely redesigned, the RCA aesthetic remains with an obvious tribute to ChangesOneBowie.

Speaking of the packaging, the reissue includes a booklet with sleeve notes written by Morrissey, which describe the making of the album with wit and humility.

It was certainly a difficult album. Morrissey and band allowed themselves some experimentation by flirting with drum solos and classical samples, and both the first and last songs clocked in at over ten minutes.

One of the greatest crimes of Morrissey’s solo career was the way he hid one of his best ever songs, Nobody Loves Us, away on the B-side of lead single Dagenham Dave. It has now been added to the album along with three previously unreleased songs (Honey, You Know Where to Find Me, Fantastic Bird and You Should Have Been Nice to Me) in a completely rearranged track listing.

The first five tracks make the beginning of a much more consistent album than the original but dropping Southpaw in at track 6 disturbs the flow. It was always an excellent album closer, but putting it in the middle of the album just highlights the fact that it’s really only a five minute song with another five minutes of extended noodling left on at the end. After that, the re-ordered album lurches around all over the place. The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils is similarly stripped of its impact when bumped down from the opening track to track 10. Having already put the natural closing song on the first half of the disc, Nobody Loves Us is again sold short at the end of the album.

Southpaw Grammar was always a slightly flawed album and the revised edition is just as flawed, only in different ways.

The one to buy is:
Despite having only eight tracks, the original version makes more sense as a complete album. Having said that, the reissue has all the tracks from the original plus strong additional tracks and some enlightening sleeve notes, so you might as well get that one and program a playlist that follows the original track list if you so choose.
Reader Meet Author - original 1995 release
Reader Meet Author - 2009 remaster

Maladjusted 1997/2009
The new version of Maladjusted also comes with some explanatory sleeve notes, although they’re altogether more surreal and meandering. As with Southpaw Grammar, the track-listing has been completely shifted around but thankfully the opening title track has been left in its rightful position. Six tracks, previously released as B-sides, have been added. Some of the additions, like Lost and The Edges are No Longer Parallel are excellent while others, such as Heir Apparent and Now I Am a Was are B-side grade.

In fact, that’s the biggest problem with the new version of Maladjusted; it’s sixty minutes of songs that mostly belong on Side 2. Papa Jack and Roy’s Keen have been removed. Although they were both fairly unremarkable songs, the latter contributed some contrast to the original album. In fairness, it was only slightly more twee than The First of the Gang to Die, which everyone considered a triumph. Morrissey really shouldn’t be ashamed of his occasional moments of whimsy.

The inclusion of This Is Not Your Country adds some classic Moz controversy, of the same kind stirred by The National Front Disco, but it’s more about the feeling of not belonging than telling anyone they don’t belong.

The two closing tracks have been reversed. On this edition, Sorrow Will Come in the End (originally left off the UK version) now comes after Satan Rejected My Soul and it’s probably a mistake. Sorrow Will Come… is a thinly veiled response to Morrissey’s loss in the court case brought by Smiths drummer Mike Joyce. The spoken word piece sounded less petulant and ineffectual when followed by the self-mockery of Satan…  but as the album closer twelve years later, it just sounds petty and sad.

The redesigned album art is curious too. While Morrissey was understandably dissatisfied with Mercury’s design on the original, he did at least look maladjusted whereas on the new cover, he looks every inch the Good Looking Man About Town, which is kind of incongruous.

The one to buy is:
The original. While missing a couple of strong tracks it has a more satisfying light and shade while the reissue comes dangerously close to sounding homogenous.
Alma Matters - original 1997 release
Alma Matters - 2009 remaster

Bona Drag 1990/2010
I’ve already covered this in the best of the best ofs, but to recapitulate:
What was originally a stop-gap collection of singles and B-sides has by default become one of Morrissey’s strongest albums owing to the very high quality of his B-sides from 1988 to 1990.

The track order has not been changed as with the previous reissues, just the tracks themselves. Piccadilly Palare has gained a verse previously cut out (although, it’s not the “No, Dad,” version that has circulated online), Ouija Board, Ouija Board has lost the humourous, “Steven, push off!” section and Suedehead has had the ambient introductory strums cut off. Interesting Drug and November Spawned a Monster are now cross-faded together. As with the original release of Bona Drag, the achingly beautiful Will Never Marry is faded out early before the minor key coda.

There are six additional tracks added at the end of the disc, four previously unreleased. Unfortunately, the ruins the perfect “Goodnight, and thank you,” ending of Disappointed, but other than that, it’s the appropriate place for them.

Of particular interest are The Bed Took Fire (an alternative version of At Amber) and Morrissey’s demo of Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness, which he wrote with Stephen Street for Sandie Shaw. For no apparent reason, the long mix of Let The Right One Slip In from the Your Arsenal sessions concludes the bonus tracks. It has been a continuing pattern across the reissues to drop in tracks that belong to a different era to the rest of the album. Although his detractors claim all Morrissey’s songs sound the same, the truth is that he has gone through several phases which sound completely different to one another. Mercifully, the new closing track on Bona Drag does not scream too much at the rest of the album.

The one to buy is:
The reissue is the natural choice, given the added rarities, although it does mean that you’ll have to find a copy of Suedehead, The Best of Morrissey (now deleted) if you want to have the original versions of Piccadilly Palare and Ouija Board, Ouija Board.
Suedehead - Bona Drag original 1990 release
Suedehead - Bona Drag 2010 remaster

Viva Hate 1988/2012
Not to take anything away from Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce and especially Johnny Marr, but if you didn’t know in 1988 that The Smiths had broken up and you were told that Viva Hate was the new Smiths album, you would probably have believed them. Such was the skill with which Smiths engineer and co-producer Stephen Street rescued Morrissey’s career. It was, in short, a triumph.

Here’s what nobody said: “It would be even better if you chopped the beginning and end off of Late Night, Maudlin Street, and replaced The Ordinary Boys with, oh, I dunno, some demo that was never properly recorded so the vocal sounds like it was sung into a Walkman.”

Viva Hate has already been through the reissue wringer once before in 1997, where it was given a budget label style cover, and eight additional tracks, only two of which were contemporary to the album. This time around, the original cover photograph has been reinstated (no credit for hair this time, though) but the monochrome shade has been changed from blue to black and the title now appears in a gold, Old English style font. It gives an unnecessary Oi! look to the cover which might have been better avoided given Morrissey’s occasional flirtations with British nationalism, unintentional or misunderstood though they may have been.

The remastering was overseen by Stephen Street and it sounds beautiful but then again, it always did. Street has also made it clear that he objected to the changes that have been made to the album (the word “butchered” may have been used), but despite being the producer, arranger, composer, guitarist, bassist and indeed instigator of the album, his preferences were irrelevant.

The one to buy is:
The original. For the love of all things decent, the original!
Suedehead - Viva Hate 1997 remaster
Suedehead - Viva Hate 2012 remaster

Kill Uncle 1991/2013

Kill Uncle is universally recognised as Morrissey’s weakest album and not without reason. He was three years into his contract with EMI (actually signed by The Smiths) with so far only one album and a compilation of singles to please them, please them, please them. Having split with Stephen Street, Morrissey entered a songwriting partnership of convenience with Mark E Nevin, who had recently left Fairground Attraction. Curiously, Nevin is not mentioned once in Morrissey’s sprawling Autobiography, which might have come as a relief to him since Morrissey seems to have little but contempt for most other collaborators he has parted company with.

So with the album’s reputation for mediocrity unchallenged, it comes as a bit of a surprise that this rearranged and (slightly) expanded version is really rather good. In fact, by bumping Asian Rut (a well-intentioned song with a contemptible title) down from track 2 to track 5, side 1 of Kill Uncle suddenly becomes one of the strongest first sides Morrissey has ever made.

Pashernate Love and East West are added to the middle of the album. Although they stick out a bit – the former is a Your Arsenal era B-side and East West is the first time Morrissey has elevated a cover version to album track status – they serve as a kind of break between (what would be) sides 1 and 2, so they don’t disturb the flow too much.

The two closing tracks have been reversed with There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends now preceding The End of the Family Line. That would almost work but the original version of …a Place in Hell… has been replaced with a live version first released on the Live at KROQ EP. The problem in doing this is that the line on the live version, “And looking back, I won’t forgive / And I never will, I never will,” really only makes sense when you know that the original line was, “And looking back, we will forgive / We had no choice, we always did.” The live version is a great reinterpretation, but it needs the original (recorded directly over Mark Nevin’s piano demo made in his front room) to stand in contrast to.

The one to buy is:
Despite the quibble over There’s a Place in Hell… the reissue is a much stronger album.
Our Frank - original 1991 release
Our Frank - 2013 remaster

Your Arsenal 1992/2014
Show me someone who says all Morrissey songs sound the same and I’ll show you someone who either hasn’t heard many Morrissey songs or paid very little attention when they did.

For the video to Sing Your Life, a rockabilly band was hired and subsequently became Morrissey’s touring band and songwriting collaborators. For their first album together, Morrissey adapted his style to theirs far more than they did to his. This, and working with Mick Ronson as producer, were undoubtedly good for him. Not only was Your Arsenal a return to form, but its raucousness smashed the stereotype of fey, bookish, diary-writing Moz.

Being so good from the start, the immediate worry was that Morrissey would tinker about with the reissue as he had done with all the previous ones. Such worries are unfounded though. The track listing is identical. The only advertised difference is that it includes the US mix of the closing track, Tomorrow. However, this is also a little misleading. The only difference between this version and the original is that the vocal does not fade out in the last line. The quirky piano coda (which I always liked) is still there, and even goes on for a couple of extra bars.

This may make it seem like it’s a rather pointless purchase but I can tell you it isn’t. The remaster is fuller, brighter and had more bass presence. It has been given a fair bit of volume limiting but there are some styles that this approach lends itself to and this is one of them. If you already own and enjoy the album, it’s definitely worth the upgrade without even mentioning the additional DVD.

The DVD was filmed live at The Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, on October 31st, 1991, about six months before the recording of Your Arsenal. As such, most of the set is drawn from Viva Hate and Kill Uncle, with previews of We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful and Pashernate Love.

As with the Live in Dallas DVD, it’s sourced from VHS and has had no restoration so both the picture and sound quality are as low as you’d imagine. The mix is very dry for a live recording and may even have come from monitor mixes. Despite the substandard quality, it really captures the barely organised chaos of a Morrissey show, where the quality of performance and production come a distant second to the experience.

The one to buy is:
The reissue. Calling it the Definitive Master may sound a bit wanky, but it is.
Tomorrow - original 1992 release
Tomorrow - 2014 remaster

Vauxhall and I 1994/2014
Following the return to form of Your Arsenal, Vauxhall and I was the album where it all fell into place. After several failed attempts, he had finally found some long term songwriting partners in Alain White and Boz Boorer, and their compositions for this album were an order of magnitude more adventurous than the previous set. This, combined with some excellent production from Steve Lillywhite makes it probably equal with Viva Hate as Morrissey’s best solo release.

It’s not a perfect album. There’s a noticeable side-2 slump but that is forgotten as soon as Speedway begins, with probably the only ever use of a two-stroke engine as a musical instrument, and builds to a crescendo four minutes later that almost leaves you breathless.

Under the circumstances then, there was a reasonable fear that he might butcher this one as well. Fortunately, he hasn’t. He’s just sold it awfully short.

Like all the reissues from Bona Drag onwards, it comes in a mini-gatefold cardboard sleeve with no lyric sheet and minimal credits. Full points for sustainability but you would expect a “definitive” edition to have just a little more, especially when the design of the original was so beautiful. So while the presentation is no more minimalist than the four previous reissues, Vauxhall and I looks particularly cheap and nasty even with a bonus live disc.

Having written that, it’s just struck me that the whole series of EMI reissues has the look and feel of the kind of mid-price, no frills reissues of classic albums that we used to see in the 80s. Given Morrissey’s long held focus on design and presentation (including the resurrection of several defunct company imprints from His Master’s Voice to RCA to Attack), this is quite possibly deliberate, if not particularly satisfying to fans who are probably buying these albums for at least the second time.

The sound quality is excellent, but it always was. It’s not a failure of the remastering that it hasn’t brought out nuances that weren’t there before, it just goes to show that it was kind of unnecessary. Although having said that, credit is due to the mastering engineers for not fixing something that wasn’t broken by just making it all really loud.

Of all the live sets that have appeared as bonus incentives on Morrissey reissues and compilations (Greatest Hits, Swords, Your Arsenal), this one, recorded at the Theatre Royal in 1995, is far and away the best. Typically, bonus live discs are not up to the standard of standalone live albums, but this one compares very favourably to Moz’s first solo live album Beethoven was Deaf. It’s certainly worth the purchase price and having a redundant copy of Vauxhall and I for.

The one to buy is:
The reissue if you want the live disc but otherwise, the original.
Speedway - original 1994 release
Speedway - 2014 remaster

* In fact, in the time between writing that sentence and completing this series of reviews, Morrissey (ahem) parted company with Harvest records and the new album released on that label has been withdrawn from sale, so you had better get it while you can.

Finally, we know Morrissey has a flair for dramatic language so “cancer scrapings” could possibly mean anything, but do get well soon, you contrary old devil.

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