The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
In 1992, music was mutating. Strange new bands with weird new sounds were beginning to dominate radio and MTV, and strange old bands were finally getting their due. Alternative music was no longer just an alternative. The weirdoes had inherited the earth, or at least the front rack at the record store. During the spring of that year, however, the music-listening population of the world was subjected to a singularly shocking, unprecedented, and downright bizarre phenomenon.
The sound of Morrissey laughing.
“We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,” the first single from Morrissey’s 1992 album Your Arsenal, doesn’t have a typically sung chorus. It has laughter. Morrissey’s laughter. Morrissey, the man known as The Pope Of Mope, the former frontman of The Smiths—one of cornerstones of alternative rock. Granted, it’s a tear-stained cornerstone. During their brief lifespan from 1982 to ’87, The Smiths had established themselves as the most dour and depressing group imaginable. But unlike doomsayers such as the late Ian Curtis, leader of fellow Manchester legends Joy Division, Morrissey didn’t trudge through the gloom. He twirled through it, wholly comfortable in his existential discomfort.
By the time Your Arsenal came out, Morrissey had been solo for as long as The Smiths had been together. He already sounded exhausted. His most recent album, 1991’s Kill Uncle, remains one of the least inspired works in his catalog. In other words, by the dawn of ’92, Morrissey didn’t seem to have a lot of friends, and he wasn’t exactly successful. Meanwhile, tons of bands that The Smiths had inspired—or, like James, taken under their wing in the early days—were far surpassing Morrissey on the charts. Madchester, shoegaze, the first blush of what would become Britpop: All these things were suddenly more bankable and relevant than droopy ol’ Morrissey. Not to mention his former Smiths-mate Johnny Marr, who had been playing with everyone from The Pretenders to Talking Heads, or his buddy from back in the day, Michael Stipe, whose group R.E.M. had suddenly become the biggest thing in the world.
Putting the word “uncle” in the title of his latest album probably didn’t help. It just subliminally reinforced the notion that Morrissey was a cranky, avuncular has-been, sitting alone in his lonely room with rain-flattened hair like the protagonists of so many of his soggy songs. It’s likely that Morrissey did, in truth, hate the fact that his friends had become more successful than him. In true Morrissey fashion, he turned that passing twinge of professional jealousy into a song, if only to amuse himself. And amuse him it did.
“Ha, ha, ha-ha-ha / Ha, ha-ha-ha / Ha, ha-ha-ha / Oh, HA-HA-HA-HA!” goes the unsettling chorus to “Friends.” Morrissey’s laugh is like a self-destructing cackle, an unhinged hiccup, a sore-throated eruption of derangement. It’s fucking creepy. And it fits the song perfectly. Written with new recruit Alain Whyte—who, along with fellow guitarist Boz Boorer, formed the glam-meets-rockabilly core of Morrissey’s band that’s remained more or less intact ever since—“Friends” is a sinewy, propulsive track the likes of which Morrissey hadn’t sung since The Smiths’ short-lived, latter-day foray into T. Rex territory (namely “Sheila Take A Bow” and “Is It Really So Strange?”). Having Mick Ronson, David Bowie’s guitar god during the Spiders From Mars days, on board as producer helped hone the fledgling group into a tight, focused whole. That confidence, plus Whyte’s and Boorer’s joyous, ascendant chords, chafe deliciously against Morrissey’s batshit laughter and self-caricatured spite.
Tell any diehard fan how much you hate Morrissey, and the first defense usually offered is this: Morrissey is way less depressing and way funnier than most people think he is. This is, after all, the goofball who wrote “Vicar In A Tutu,” a Smiths song that bears the couplet, “As Rose collects the money in the canister / Who comes sliding down the bannister?” But it’s not only that Morrissey has funny songs and sad songs. His funny songs can be agonizingly sad, and his sad songs are often fucking hilarious. Those opposing emotions don’t only coexist, they feed and echo off each other. It’s a tangle of mood and theme triangulated by literary license, paradox, and Morrissey’s own acute self-consciousness as both star and shut-in—both sex symbol and sexless schmuck.
“Friends” says it all. “We hate it when our friends become successful / And if they’re Northern, that makes it even worse,” Morrissey half whines, half croons in the song. He’s taking his own cult of personality and identity as an uppity Northerner, turning it inside out, and twisting it into a Möbius strip. Make that a Morrissey strip. “And if we can destroy them / You bet your life we will destroy them / And if we can hurt them, well, we may well / It’s really laughable.” Cue that hideously gleeful chuckle again, one that cuts in all directions at once.
“Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship,” said Morrissey’s hero, Oscar Wilde, “and it is by far the best ending for one.” Morrissey seemed to take that quote to heart in “Friends.” Gambling with a new backing band, new songwriters, a new sound, and even a new tone, the song had to work as both a reconnection with old fans and an introduction to the fresh-faced alt-rock hordes who knew Morrissey only by name and dubious reputation. For all he knew, though, it might fail and be neither. Faced with that unwinnable proposition, he did the smartest thing he could. He laughed his ass off. By, with, and at himself. Leave it to a pathological contrarian like Morrissey to sing a song about a lack of success and spin it into a full-fledged comeback. With his first laugh, Morrissey had the last one.