It’s a curious sensation, reviewing an album I know so well. Normally I find I have to listen about a dozen times to make sure I’ve caught the hooks I want to catch, and heard the lyrics that need to be heard. Your Arsenal, though, is an album I can pretty much play through in my head, note for note, sound for sound. Word for controversial hate-baiting word.
I’m almost jealous of anyone who gets paid to write a review of this re-issue; I know they’re all about my age (or possibly older - ha!) and even if they’re not Morrissey fans, or secret Smiths-reunion piners, they’ll probably know much of this material pretty well. Some might even be able to quote their own 22-year-old reviews, add in a few references to how the mix is different for the remaster, and hey presto - once written, twice paid.
The NME style bible at the time presumably said something along the lines of “Morrissey: say bad things whenever possible. If you can’t say something bad, say nothing at all”
There’s not a great deal to say abut the remaster: it’s certainly louder, clearer, brighter than the 1992 release. Perhaps a touch too bright in places, but that might just be a side-effect of a side-by-side comparison with the original, which now sounds suddenly quiet and muddy in a way I hadn’t previously noticed. But at least the running order has been preserved, and there have been no late substitutions, other than the appearance of the US Mix of Tomorrow in place of the original.
More interesting is the response provoked by the album, and the behaviour of its creator around the time of its release. Your Arsenal] was feather-ruffling, ire-inducing Morrissey in his pomp. Later he would release a single, **Boxers], and an album [albumtitle:Southpaw Grammar], that revealed him to be enthralled by a certain violence of grubbiness; he would appear, not for the first time, to applaud gangsters as heroes. But for now, for a brief period, all was calm: the furore over [tracktitle:Bengali in Platforms had largely passed; [tracktitle:Asian Rut** had stoked only minor controversy.
All was calm. And then, less than two weeks after the release of Your Arsenal, Morrissey performed in the middle of the bill at Madstock, a Finsbury Park concert arranged by a reunited Madness. As the band struck up National Front Disco, he draped himself in the Union flag.
National Front Disco, in which the song’s protagonist, David, to the disquiet of his family and friends, shimmies his way into patriotic extremism. You go the disco, Morrissey sang to a field of Davids, because you believe in “England for the English”, “Because you want the day to come sooner”.
There's a country; you don't live there
But one day you would like to
And if you show them what you're made of
Oh, then you might do
Suddenly that quiff looked different. Suddenly, everyone looked at you different. Suddenly that backing band took on a new dimension: good old time rock’n’roll, from a time before, when perhaps Davids did live in that country.
The NME, whose style bible at the time presumably said something along the lines of “Morrissey: say bad things whenever possible. If you can’t say something bad, say nothing at all”, concluded that whatever the truth of Morrissey’s views on race, it was no longer possible simply to evade the question. Unfortunately, evasion was Morrissey’s métier; back in his days in The Smiths, questions were raised - ridiculous questions, but questions all the same - about the lyrical content of songs like Reel Around the Fountain] and [tracktitle:The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Writing in The Sun, Nick Ferrari, attacking the tone of one song to the lyrics of another (and inventing a few lyrics of his own while he was at it), wrote a piece under the headline “Child sex song puts Beeb in a spin”.
Morrissey was rightly outraged, but he fumbled his response. Having already faced down similar accusations once before, this time the unreliable narrator made some unfortunate remarks about context: sure, you can find child-molesting in there if that’s what you want to find, but “you could do the same with anyone. You could do the same with ABBA”. (Does make you wonder, doesn’t it? Why have The Sun never run an exposé on the extremely controversial content of ABBA’s songs?)
Ridiculous from Morrissey, of course, and not helpful. “Make of this what you will”, he seems to be saying, “and I know you will make something of it - I know what I mean, and I don’t really care how you, or anyone else chooses to interpret it.” Later, Morrissey would do better: a regular at the law courts, sometimes of his own volition, he would receive apologies for accusations of racism (but also a ticking off for not giving “the drummer” his dues).
But back to Finsbury Park: the Morrissey on stage with the flag and the skinhead girls backdrop is the Morrissey with the wink and a snarl that says “look! I’m doing it again!”. It’s knowing, just as are so many of his recent statements on eating meat, the Chinese, The Queen, anything. Morrissey is essentially a troll. Not a hideous troll, not a particularly bullying troll, just the hit and run sort with a knack of delivering the kind of half-baked opinion that should be dismissed, dispatched and disregarded, as is the case right up to that moment where someone, inevitably, has to pipe up with “actually, he might have a point, you know…”. He’s not going to explain himself in a satisfying way, so you might as well stop asking. Fans will continue to enjoy the music. AA Gills will continue to swing their gilded hatchets.
And Morrissey will continue to avoid the issue:
The reason why The National Front Disco was pounced upon was really because - if I may say so - it was actually a very good song. And if the song had been utter crap, no one would have cared.
He does have a point; if not about the reasons then about the quality. The frenetic energy, the stomp and stomp some more glam-rock attack of National Front Disco], and album opener [tracktitle:You’re Gonna Need Someone on Your Side], together with the consciously old-fashioned rockabilly of [tracktitle:Certain People I Know] had freed Morrissey from the travails of the much unloved **Kill Uncle. Doing something new, breaking free, had invigorated him, and it’s no surprise that his collaborators in chief on [albumtitle:Your Arsenal** - Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte - went on to form a long and fruitful collaboration with Morrissey.
If Morrissey is going to be misinterpreted even when he’s being open and honest, then you have to say his reluctance to explain those supposed ambiguities starts to make more sense.
Two singles from the album - We hate it when our friends become successful] and [tracktitle:You’re the one for me fatty] - weren’t big hits, but their lyrical lightness and general end of the pier jollity take some of the heat off, but their best work is in setting up a playful (almost) party atmosphere for the relentless ocean waves of [tracktitle:Seasick, Yet Still Docked to smother. Huge cymbals accentuate the rise and fall of a simple bass, picked melody, and persistent acoustic strum; through the song’s long, lonely five minutes, a background wail gradually asserts itself behind a lyric of rare bleakness.
I am a poor freezingly cold soul
So far from where
I intended to go
Scavenging through life’s very constant lulls
So far from where I’m determined to go
Well, you gotta throw a bone to the “Morrissey is so depressing” crowd from time to time, and the bigger the bone, the easier they catch it.
Seasick, Yet Still Docked is one of the crowning glories of Morrissey’s solo work; with We’ll Let You Know it shows, when given half a chance, that his vocal melodies really stand up. Also majestic, if in a very different way, is I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday. A confused David Bowie, seeing it as Morrissey’s stab at a track like his own Rock n Roll Suicide, covered the track pretty disastrously on Black Tie White Noise.
Where Bowie erred was in reading I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday as something from his own time, when really, like the radio snatches and static that bookend the track, it feels older and grander: if anything it belongs to those early days of the Top 40, when Al Martino and co would sing with great gusto and no little sincerity their songs of love and loss, hopes and fears. If Morrissey is going to be misinterpreted even when he’s being open and honest, then you have to say his reluctance to explain those supposed ambiguities starts to make more sense.