A hard left hook for “Southpaw Grammar”

August 9, 2009

I’m not used to defending the indefensible. In truth, I’m not accustomed to defending the defensible either. Yet I’ve suffered a tremendous change of heart in recent weeks concerning what is perhaps Morrissey’s most reviled album; Southpaw Grammar.

This volte-face came about as a result of a recent gig in which Morrissey performed Best Friend on the Payroll, a track from this album. I was immediately struck by how well he performed it and, additionally, how good the song actually was. Southpaw Grammar is an album I have owned for several years (recently repurchased in the newly-released special edition) but have never been able to penetrate. Following the gig, I resolved to give it more time.

I am very glad that I did. There is, however, no questioning the album’s inaccessibility. The original release consisted of a mere nine songs, two of which stretched over the ten minute mark. One of these songs, The Teachers are Afraid of the Pupils, opened the album with a sample of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor. Hardly the perkiest or most energetic way to begin an album. Another song opens with a two and half minute drum solo. Furthermore, released little more than a year after the sublimely elegiac Vauxhall and I, the album’s sound is a marked contrast that could only have confused and infuriated listeners. Critically, it was utterly panned. In 1995, Oasis, Blur and Pulp were at the forefront of British pop music. Though all bands owe a debt of influence to Morrissey and The Smiths, none could have sounded more different from Morrissey’s current work. A lacklustre performance of The Boy Racer on “Later…” (an episode in which Pulp also appeared) effectively displays the contrast. The band in suits, giving their all to a thoroughly unmoved audience. Fittingly, the song bemoans the narrator’s passing youth and envy at a more popular counterpart. Morrissey could well have been singing the song directly at Jarvis Cocker across the studio floor.

I’ve always enjoyed The Boy Racer and the new edition of the album has moved it up the tracklisting to serve as a ferocious opener. Yet there’s one song on the album that I had previously never listened to and am now utterly entranced by. The epic Southpaw previously closed the album but has now been moved to the middle of the tracklisting. As such, it serves as a centrepiece of sorts. Seemingly a tale of childhood loneliness transformed into adult longing, in which the paths of two kindred souls are destined never to cross, the song utterly transcends its lyrical obliqueness. Simon Goddard in his new book, Mozipedia, sums it up more eloquently than I ever could; “As a recording, Southpaw stands out as, potentially, the most experimental track of Morrissey’s career: five minutes of pop melancholy, sprinting in search of escape but tumbling helplessly into a trance-like abyss of sedated misery… As his voice finds its horizon and fades away, the instrumental coda’s trembling heart-strings and hollow, hopeless rhythms serve only to reiterate the never-to-be-lovers’ unalterable sorrow”. Not the happiest of songs but it makes the hairs on my arms stand bolt upright every time I hear it. Even Johnny Marr never managed that.

Southpaw Grammar is, beyond everything, unashamedly a rock album. Named for Morrissey’s newly-found passion for pugilism, it is both brutal and beautiful. It’s not his finest collection of songs but as an experience, it’s well worth listening to. The new edition is a worthy addition to any CD collection, with sleevenotes written by the man himself explaining the processes behind the recording. The sense of pride he feels in the work is overwhelming and one any fan should share.

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