To call Steven Morrissey a curiosity is an oversimplification, a cliche and a huge understatement all at the same time. Simultaneously a self-pitying victim of criminally vulgar shyness and a roaring lion with the cruel wit and brilliance of Oscar Wilde, he remains one of the few artists to whom I relate myself as a fan while also despising his person, message and style. How this contradiction came to exist in my mind I have no idea, but that is Morrissey’s charm and power: He is a beacon of controversy and high-flying emotions whose outstretched arms imply either the wish to kiss us or to chew us up with gnashing teeth, and we are unstoppably drawn to his presence.
That said, “Irish Blood, English Heart” is one of Morrissey’s worst singles ever. This fact fits quite well into his ever-growing world of contradictions, since You Are the Quarry is some of his best work since the Smiths. Morrissey-logic would dictate that the album’s most bloated, obvious, cliched track would be the first pick for mass consumption. Let’s discuss what goes wrong here:
1. The title seeks to reassure the public that Morrissey, while currently residing in Los Angeles, retains his Irish genes and his English culture. This is obvious, being that the singer has spent the majority of his life in England, and anyone wishing to refute his Englishness need only hear Morrissey’s tea-sipping Wildean wit. If Morrissey worries that people doubt his patriotism because of his anti-Thatcherism, despise of Blair and overall disgust with the British courts, perhaps he should remember that a great deal of his country (and especially his fellow British musicians) wholeheartedly support these opinions.
2. Morrissey leaves no room for his trademark humor and double-meanings. Rather, he postures with images of “dying with both of my hands untied” and declarations that “there is no one of Earth I’m afraid of,” which may work as a confidence booster for the artist but cannot help but seem far-fetched to the rest of us.
3. Jerry Finn, who has produced wonderfully original artists like blink 182 and AFI [cough], layers on armies of ham-fisted guitar licks and bends with an awful echo-filled verse that would be right at home with System of the Down.
4. The patriotic/regime-challenging call to arms is likely being used by marketing people to appeal to the current furiously indecisive political heat of the American public, though most of us hamburger-munchers have not a clue who dictator Oliver Cromwell is. Oh, and the marketing is working; “Irish Blood” has gotten more American radio-play than any other previous Morrissey single.
Sorry Moz, I don’t mean to offend. Let it be a credit to the artist that the three B-sides on this single are infinitely better than “Irish Blood” and even rival the best tracks on Quarry. The catchy “It’s Hard To Walk Tall When You’re Small” carries Morrissey’s trademark wit and cruelty but also humility, as Moz contrasts the shy wallflower of “How Soon Is Now?” to a belligerent wreck who “bursts into public bars and throws [his] weight around and no one can even see [him].” “Munich Air Disaster 1958” works well as a simple but touching and heartfelt eulogy for the Manchester United players who died in a freak plane crash decades ago.
But the true star of these B-sides is “The Never-Played Symphonies.” This wonderfully soft and introspective song finds the 45-year-old Morrissey imagining his impending death and bearing his soul with insights that he “can’t see those who very patiently put up with me.” Both emotionally complex and musically stirring (symphonic tympanis and swelling violins abound), Moz admits that in the face of death he can only see the “never-laid, the never-played symphonies,” which, while referring to his embrace of music as a lifelong passion, also hints at regrets of not pursuing past romantic interests.
The single itself is an abysmal failure and a stain upon Morrissey’s magnificent comeback, but “Irish Blood, English Heart” is worth its price just for “The Never-Played Symphonies,” which trades bloated political whining for some of his most honest lyrics since “Half a Person.” The idea that “Irish Blood” can be redeemed at all is a testament to Morrissey’s power and conviction. Bravo.