Sing Your Life: How Morrissey Became Music’s Greatest Lyricist
Morrissey has long been commended for his lyrics (he has even been compared to writer Oscar Wilde). Yet it is rarely referenced how ahead of his time he’s been with the issues he’s addressed throughout his songs.
Morrissey’s journey into expressing his innermost thoughts and ideas almost certainly began in his teen years, locked away in his bedroom as he penned journals, poems, reviews and lyrics. The seeds for what was to come were planted long before fans first heard any of the classic lyrics that have now become so culturally representative of our time.
Indeed, with the passing of time and the benefit of hindsight, we can see the impact Morrissey’s lyrics had in helping The Smiths become the legendary band they went on to become.
It is clearly demonstrated through the artist’s solo successes (of the level that certain other band members subsequently failed to attain) that Morrissey’s unique lyrics and vocals apparently provided that extra “something” that music fans so obviously adored and needed.
What exactly is it about Morrissey and his lyrics that seem to create such a strong emotional reaction in his listeners? It’s almost impossible to define exactly what makes him such a powerful writer and pulling apart line after line of lyrics seems almost rudimentary; at the most basic level, what appears to make Morrissey such a great lyricist is the fact that his words are so utterly, completely and authentically him.
His honesty, thoughts and views on the world have always made him a person who stood out and made things interesting for his listeners.
The artist once said that none of what he does is a “performance,” and indeed, it is easy to believe this when one hears him speak in an interview or on the pages of his autobiography. For as frank, honest, and achingly raw as his lyrics can be, the human who penned them seems to be exactly the same when engaged in dialogue. There is seemingly no barrier between the artist and the art.
“The industry don’t particularly like people like me,” Morrissey said in his London Palladium interview with me in October 2022. “I’m a real person,” he added. It is all too easy to see what the singer was alluding to when looking at many of the performers who currently litter the music world. So many of them manufactured; carefully orchestrated and controlled.
No aspect of their image or music seems untouched by the “men in suits” who find them easy to manage, sculpt and mould into safe boxes — thus creating a factory of blandly palatable offerings which seem to hold nothing of significance. The only benefit of such entertainers seems to be the ease with which they can be discarded once the “cash cow” stops dropping profits.
In this way, seen in this light, it becomes apparent why Morrissey struck such a chord with his audience all those years ago when he first hit the music scene. After four decades of music, he still manages to capture the interest of fans and cause conversation, debate, and engagement with his lyrical insights. For fans, he is a voice of truth in a world that celebrates fashionable lies. His lyrics are a reflection of the experience of many the world over.
Morrissey does not mask himself through his songwriting and instead reveals more and more of who he truly is through his art. So much so that listening to his songs can often feel like reading the intimate diary of a heartbroken soul, a man who laments the brokenness of modern life and the measured weight of loneliness in a world that seems increasingly alien to him.
Morrissey packages truths in art.
Morrissey’s authenticity as a songwriter can be seen way back in the days of The Smiths. For example, one need look no further than the iconic track Meat Is Murder (1985) to see how an issue dear to his heart was expressed in such a direct and unvarnished way. “Heifer whines could be human cries/Closer comes the screaming knife/This beautiful creature must die/This beautiful creature must die/A death for no reason and death for no reason is murder…”
In a world that is now filled with animal-rights organisations and vegan/vegetarian restaurants, such a song might not seem as shocking, but Morrissey delivered this song during a time when a meat-free diet was fairly uncommon, and those that spoke up for animal rights were more often ridiculed or criticised rather than praised.
What Morrissey delivered in this 80’s classic was the opening of a cultural dialogue about the meat industry and how we treat animals, with fans in droves converting to vegetarianism as a result. Uncomfortable lyrics they may have been to hear, but Meat Is Murder is a perfect example of the artist exploring real issues that meant something to him in a relatable and striking way.
In much the same way, Morrissey’s opinions on broader societal and political issues are often addressed in his lyrics. Take, for instance, the track Ganglord of 2009’s Swords compilation. In light of the tragic events in the USA — where young African-American man George Floyd, 46, was killed after a police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes — many fans had found themselves drawn to the lyrics in this Morrissey song, which include: “Ganglord, the police are/Grinding me into the ground/The headless pack are back/Small boy jokes and loaded guns/They say ‘to protect and to serve’/But what they really mean to say is/Get back to the ghetto.”
It is evident, looking through the span of Morrissey’s songwriting career, that speaking up for minorities was something he was doing from the very start, which makes the modern-day criticisms of him seem even more hollow and baseless.
The artist again expressed his criticisms in Who Will Protect Us From The Police, a number from 2017’s Low In High School. In that particular track, Morrissey sings: “Say daddy/who will protect us from the police?/the tanks on the street/attacking free speech/we must pay for what we believe.”
In 2004’s You Are The Quarry, Morrissey delivered sharp truths about the world. In the opening track America Is Not The World, Morrissey sings, “The land of the free, they said, and of opportunity, in a just and a truthful way / But where the president is never black, female or gay/until that day, you’ve got nothing to say to me/to help me believe …” These lyrics were, of course, penned many years before Barrack Obama landed in the White House, or before Hilary Clinton became the first ever woman to win a presidential election by a major party. Morrissey evidently saw a true lack of diversity and called it out long before it became a fashionable take to do so.
On How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel, of the same album, he directs his criticism towards the "authority" figures who mistreat others. In one verse, seething with anger, he sings, “everybody look see pain and walk away/And as for you in your uniform, you think you can be rude to me/ Because you wear a uniform, a smelly uniform/so you think you can be rude to me…”
Despite the press continually vilifying Morrissey for his honesty and for telling the truth as he sees it, he still refuses to shy away from exploring important and sensitive issues. In one of his more recent tracks, Bonfire of Teenagers (a 2022 song from the as-yet-unreleased album of the same name), he unleashes fury about the Manchester Arena bombing in which several teenagers died in the 2017 attack.
Bonfire of Teenagers is ravishingly explicit in its raw anger about the needless and tragic deaths. While the Oasis anthem ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ (referenced in the song lyrics) can perhaps be a comfort to many at such a time, Morrissey instead takes his listeners aside and assures them that it is okay to be angry about this and that anger is a normal, human response to hurt, pain, death and tragedy.
Morrissey obviously feels pained at the actions that took place in his homeland, and through this song, he shows us that he is still very passionate about justice and truth.
Appraising the artist’s lyrics and songwriting style would not be complete without reference to his famously self-depricating humour. Morrissey has often been praised for his dry and witty lyrics; indeed many examples are scattered throughout his musical journey. The interesting aspect of this songwriting style is that it is often used most effectively when he sings about difficult or sensitive subjects. Take, for instance, My Hurling Days Are Done, from 2020’s I Am Not A Dog On A Chain. A track full of longing, loss, emptiness, and retrospect suddenly takes a sharp and funny turn with the lyrics, “Time will mold you and craft you/But soon, when you’re looking away/it will slide up and shaft you.”
Even as far back as his days with The Smiths, Morrissey could twist dark humour into his songs. In Frankly, Mr. Shankly he croons, “I want to live and I want to love/I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of…”
In 2009’s Years of Refusal, Morrissey creates a striking and energetic start to the album with Something Is Squeezing My Skull, an edgy slice of garage-rock in which he sings, “I’m doing very well/I can block out the present and the past now/I know by now you think I should have straightened myself out /Thank you, drop dead!”
As a songwriter, Morrissey often uses laughter as a way to break the tension of many of the complex and emotional subjects he explores. Yet, even when he uses that much-loved wit and humour, deep meaning is often buried beneath the veneer.
Much of Morrissey’s diehard fanbase is likely attracted to him because of his exploration of societal issues through songs that many other singers would shy away from tackling.
Much like in his autobiography and in the interviews he has given over the years, his songs and lyrics reflect the kind of artist Morrissey is: honest, opinionated, angry, emotional and vulnerable.
That Morrissey, even after four decades in the industry, remains such a relevant voice highlights how rare he is amongst the bland pop-puppets that surround him. To stand up, to speak out and deliver home truths packaged in great art is obviously what we need — even if, at times, those truths may be hard to hear.