Former Smiths frontman Morrissey had been reduced to near-irrelevancy by the late 1990s, thanks to several indifferently received solo albums and the rise of such Brit-pop bands as Oasis. After seven years wandering the musical wilderness (or in this case, Los Angeles), Morrissey, who turns 45 this week, has issued one of the best albums of his admittedly checkered solo career.
"You Are the Quarry" isn't just his finest work in more than a decade, it's the high-water mark of the new wave of '80s revivalism, which has been heavy on quick-buck reunion tours (the Cure, the Pixies) and light on quality product.
Richly instrumented and crisp (thanks in part to Green Day/Blink-182 producer Jerry Finn), "Quarry" bears no traces of the prog-rock preoccupations that helped stall Morrissey's career. While "Quarry," with its strings, keyboards and layered guitars, is sonically of a piece with such offerings as 1994's "Vauxhall & I," its lyrical preoccupations are vintage Morrissey: It's a cheery mass of self-loathing, generalized loathing, irony, misanthropy and angst.
Given Morrissey's considerable capacity for creative insults, the first track, "America Is Not the World," is a disappointingly pedestrian opening salvo ("America /It brought you the hamburger / Well America / You know where you can shove your hamburger").
But things look up from there, as Morrissey grapples with nationalism (on the bristling first single "Irish Blood, English Heart"), contemplates a fading romance (the lush, lovely "Come Back to Camden," which ranks as one of his best love songs) and commiserates with indecisive lesbians ("All the Lazy Dykes").
Elsewhere, Morrissey outlines his pre-comeback career misery in painstaking detail on "You Know I Couldn't Last" ("The teenagers who love you / They will wake up / Yawn and kill you") and "How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel," songs which, like almost everything else here, are graceful but not subtle. From the showy self-pity of "I Have Forgiven Jesus" ("Why did you stick me in / Self-deprecating bones and skin / Jesus, do you hate me?") to the cover photo of the singer in an expensive suit, contemplatively aiming a tommy gun, Morrissey seems incapable of doing anything without simultaneously congratulating himself for doing it.
But seven years is just long enough to make his more irritating qualities -- his bloated self-regard, his tendency to belabor the obvious -- seem like charming eccentricities, and "Quarry" is an undeniably impressive achievement. At its best, it pulls off the near-impossible trick of being both a good wallow and a sharp stick in the eye. Even at its worst, it's simply irreproducible, the rare record that's actually about something.
"Quarry" isn't likely to win over anyone undecided about Morrissey (assuming such people still exist). Indeed, it's likely to harden the opinions of both fans and detractors, who will regard it as either a Wildean display of lyrical dexterity and wit or a tedious exercise in self-absorption, but nothing in between.
Morrissey will perform at Lollapalooza on Aug. 12 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.