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Much about Moz

Why Morrisseys solo albums are better than what he did with the Smiths

Prince, the Cure, Duran Duran, enormous budget deficits — like it or not, '80s revivalism is with us for at least a little while longer. And one of the revival's prime beneficiaries is Morrissey. After seven years without a new CD and 10 years without so much as a minor radio hit, the former Smith's singer and lyricist returned to both the charts and many a music critic's heart this year with You Are the Quarry, his seventh solo album and the biggest hit of his solo career.

If you plan on seeing Morrissey on his current concert tour, though, don't expect 90 minutes of Reagan-era nostalgia that'll have you running to Mom and Dad's attic to fetch your old Docksiders and Members Only. The '80s revival is something that Morrissey's commercial profile is benefiting from, but he's not actually participating in it. You'll likely hear only three Smiths tunes at the show. Four, if you're lucky.

Why so stingy with the classics? Is it because Morrissey is stubborn, contrarian, and genetically predisposed to making commercially detrimental artistic decisions? Well, he is obviously all of those things, but that's not the reason.

It's actually a lot simpler. Morrissey isn't trading on the legacy he created with The Smiths' between 1983 and 1987 because he doesn't need to. The cream of Morrissey's solo output is every bit as good — if not better — than what he recorded with The Smiths. But to believe or disbelieve, you have to listen to the records themselves.

Start with 1992's Your Arsenal. The album was Morrissey's first clear break from the '80s-ish, thin, trebly, jangly sound of his earlier records, both with The Smiths and by himself. Replacing it was a more full-throated, hard-edged guitar sound courtesy of Alain Whyte, Martin "Boz" Boorer, and producer Mick Ronson, the man whose glam guitars and audacious arrangements turned David Bowie into Ziggy Stardust.

That album was Morrissey's first with guitarists Whyte and Boorer, who have since gone on to become his most long-lasting collaborators, far outlasting Morrissey's four years with The Smiths. The music he has made with Whyte and Boorer has kept Morrissey vital and not an artistic relic of the '80s, stuck doing nostalgia shows.

It has even changed the way Morrissey sings. On Your Arsenal, Morrissey's voice transformed from the much-parodied flat, effeminate yelp of his Smiths days into a rich and smooth instrument, equally capable of sensual, crooning ballads and mid-tempo rockers. You can hear the croon on the yearning Your Arsenal ballad "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday" and more recently on You Are the Quarry's "Come Back To Camden" and the swoonsome "Let Me Kiss You."

In 1994, Morrissey released the finest album of his career, Vauxhall & I. Best known for its chiming comic-stalker anthem "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get," the record explores loneliness, pain and depression more seriously and poignantly than he had ever attempted before. Reeling from the deaths of three close friends within months, including Your Arsenal producer Mick Ronson, the album sounds like a somber yet defiant farewell to the cruel world. Radiohead's Thom Yorke, himself no stranger to epic downers, once claimed that the album "was all we listened to" while his band recorded The Bends.

Morrissey's next two albums — 1995's Southpaw Grammar and 1997's Maladjusted — were uneven affairs. Nevertheless, both had sublime moments, particularly Southpaw's Shostakovich-sampling 11-minute epic "The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils" and Maladjusted's serenade to misery, "Trouble Loves Me." The only Smiths tracks that measure up to the size and ambition of these cuts are the two that he's been playing on the current tour: "How Soon Is Now?" and "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out."

With the new album, Morrissey continues in the direction he started with Arsenal. The single "Irish Blood, English Heart" and the pop-star dissing rant, "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores" have a crunch and swagger reminiscent of Arsenal's hardest tracks, like the rockabilly "You're Gonna Need Someone on Your Side," and the Booker-T.-&-the-MG's-meets-T. Rex stomp of "Glamorous Glue." Another aspect that harkens back to the Clinton era instead of the Reagan era is the album's clutch of reflective narratives set to pretty, but almost invisible background music. Both "I Have Forgiven Jesus" and "I'm Not Sorry" are the sound of a band stepping back and letting Morrissey tell his story. The energized music and the deeply introspective lyrics are all key to Morrissey's post-Smiths appeal.

Where will Morrissey's music go from here? Only he and his notoriously fickle temperament know for sure. But having just endured a relative eternity away from the "New Releases" rack without ever trying to stem his commercial decline by either A) calling up the old band, or B-) instructing the new band to try to sound like the old one, it's at least certain that '80s nostalgia junkies will have to look elsewhere for their fix. I think Duran Duran's gonna be here in December.