1. The Smiths, “Sheila Take A Bow” (1986)
Morrissey defenders have long cited his sense of humor as proof that he’s more than the maudlin, one-dimensional mope he’s made out to be (not that he exactly denies it in 2013’s Autobiography). But there’s another aspect of the former Smiths singer’s work that flies even harder in the face of his miserablist stereotype: His lyrics are sometimes downright uplifting. There isn’t much of that positivity on his lackluster new album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, but his 30-year catalog bears a few shining examples. “Sheila Take A Bow,” one of The Smiths’ singles from 1986, is built on one of Johnny Marr’s most swaggering guitar riffs—and Morrissey’s lyrics verge on a pep talk. “Is it wrong not always be glad? / No, it’s not wrong, but I must add / How can someone so young / Sing words so sad?” he sings, and then adds, “Throw your homework onto the fire / Come out and find the one you love.” For someone who’s always been accused of wallowing in his own misery, and enabling his fans to do the same, it’s an upbeat about-face.
2. The Smiths, “Ask” (1986)
Another Smiths’ single from 1986, “Ask,” refutes another Morrissey stereotype: That he’s the world’s biggest champion of introversion. “Shyness is nice, and / Shyness can stop you / From doing all the things in life you’d like to,” he sings over a jaunty, jangly tune. He even encourages a proactive way of overcoming one’s shyness: “If there’s something you’d like to try / Ask me, I won’t say no / How could I?” Granted, the self-professed asexual isn’t likely to take his fans up on certain shyness-conquering offers, but the sentiment remains a positive one—even when, by the end of the song, he punctuates it with the morbid rejoinder, “If it’s not love / Than it’s the bomb / That will bring us together.”
3. Morrissey, “Sing Your Life” (1991)
“Ask” isn’t the only Morrissey song that mixes a little death into the affirmation of life. His 1991 single “Sing Your Life”—one of the earliest demonstrations of his love for the buoyant twang of vintage rockabilly—pointedly reminds the listener, “Make no mistake, my friend / Your pointless life will end.” But that one bit of negativity only underlines the rest of the song’s message: “Others sang your life / But now’s your chance to shine,” he croons, encouraging everyone within earshot to express themselves. And just in case an extra push of empowerment is needed, he adds, “You have a lovely singing voice.”
4. Morrissey, “Do Your Best And Don’t Worry” (1995)
As Morrissey’s solo career took on its own life and success in the mid-’90s, his confidence seemed to grow. Even then, ostensibly positive songs like 1994’s “Now My Heart Is Full” are far more sarcastic and dour than they let on at first. But on 1995’s “Do Your Best And Don’t Worry,” Morrissey offers the title at face value. Bright, brash, and catchy, the song surges upward on ringing guitars as the singer delivers the most straightforward, encouraing lyrics of his career: “With your standards so high / And your spirits so low / At least remember / This is you on a bad day,” he reassures before cheering, “Do your best and don’t worry / The way you hang yourself is oh so unfair.” Morrissey as a motivational speaker: Is it really so strange?
5. Morrissey, “Honey, You Know Where To Find Me” (1995)
Few songs in Morrissey’s catalog are as flat-out ebullient as “Honey, You Know Where To Find Me,” an outtake from Southpaw Grammar that finally appeared on that album’s 2009 reissue. His lyrics match the sunny music: “I’m not gonna cry for the things that never occurred,” he sings, throwing regret into the trash bin along with jealousy: “The envy is beyond me / I’m not gonna pine for the things that can never be mine.” It’s a tall order for someone who made pining away for things he can’t have—most famously on The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?”—his thing, but he pulls it off with aplomb, even going so far as to throw in, “The future is around me / I see it / I seize it / I use it / I throw it away.” Carpe diem with a Morrissey twist, but carpe diem nonetheless.
6. Morrissey, “I Just Want To See The Boy Happy” (2006)
Death rears its head again in Morrissey’s 2006 song “I Just Want To See The Boy Happy.” Instead of sounding morbid, however, the song snaps and pops as he prays to God, “Let’s face it, soon I will be dead / I just want to see the boy happy / With his arms around his first love / Is that too much to ask?” It’s not clear who the boy in question is, but Morrissey’s plea for love isn’t angry or resigned; it sounds hopeful, despite the narrator’s imminent, melodramatic demise. Oh, and there are horns at the end: bright, brassy, punchy, cheerful horns.
7. Morrissey, “That’s How People Grow Up” (2008)
Morrissey’s evolution as an artist—and as a public persona that may or may not be exaggerated for effect—has been uneven over the decades. But a calm, steady maturity has crept into his work, which is all the more striking considering his reputation for histrionics. His 2009 song “That’s How People Grow Up” appears to be aimed at himself as much as anyone else, and in this case his self-reflection doesn’t feel narcissistic: “I was wasting my life / Always thinking about myself / Someone on their deathbed said / There are other sorrows too,” he sings before summing up his newfound philosophy of personal growth in the most uplifting way that might be expected of him: “That’s how people grow up / As for me, I’m okay / For now, anyway.” It would be folly to nominate Morrissey as some kind of life coach, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his inspirational moments. Such as they are.