Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start.
Geek obsession: Morrissey
Why it’s daunting: To his fans, Steven Patrick Morrissey is a god, and for good reason. His output as frontman for The Smiths is damn near perfect, and that band has already been canonized, even though it’s only released four proper studio albums, all in the mid-’80s. Morrissey’s solo career is considerably harder to navigate for those who haven’t followed along. Think of it this way: He made records with The Smiths for about five years; he’s been making solo albums for 20. This episode of Geekery assumes that you’re already familiar with at least some of The Smiths’ catalog, which is a better place to start than most of Moz’s solo material.
Possible gateway: Bona Drag
Why: Yeah, yeah, it isn’t even a proper studio album. (But if this were a Gateway on The Smiths, I’d be advising that you start with Louder Than Bombs, so there.) But still, the 1990 singles-and-B-sides compilation represents early Morrissey at his best, and the fact that it wasn’t all written and recorded at the same time actually adds to its strength as a collection: Different co-writers and varying production make it the liveliest Morrissey solo disc. Of course, it’s a classic because of the songs. Drag collects the singles from Morrissey’s first three years as a solo artist, when his writing was still as strong (or in some cases stronger) than when he was a Smith. Some of the greatest pop singles of the era are included—“Suedehead,” “Interesting Drug,” “Everyday Is Like Sunday”—and they’re bundled with B-sides that could’ve easily been A-sides, like the brooding “Yes, I Am Blind” and “Will Never Marry,” both of which are fan favorites to this day.
Next steps: The first step forward from Bona Drag is one step back, to Morrissey’s first studio album, Viva Hate. Not at all dragged down by his band’s breakup, Morrissey blasted out of the gate with a disc that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with The Smiths’ best. For a better idea of what he would become, there’s 1992’s Your Arsenal, Morrissey’s giant step toward a bigger rock sound, produced by ’70s-rock god Mick Ronson (David Bowie, Lou Reed, etc.) and featuring the cats (and one Polecat) who would become his rockabilly-flavored backing band for many years. (Most have been replaced now, but Polecats guitarist Boz Boorer remains.) For those unimpressed by the loud guitars, there’s no shame in revisiting the unfairly maligned 1991 disc Kill Uncle, and most of Vauxhall And I is solid and underrated. 2004’s You Are The Quarry is rightfully hailed as Morrissey’s comeback.
Where not to start: Even Morrissey himself would probably warn you away from 1997’s Maladjusted, made during what seems to be a creative trench. There are a couple of bright spots—the single “Alma Matters” is decent, and “Ammunition” is quite good—but mostly Maladjusted is just dour, with lazy lyrics and uninspired arrangements. Then there’s “Sorrow Will Come In The End,” Morrissey’s spoken-word shot at Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, who sued Morrissey and Johnny Marr for royalties. It’s a silly threat made worse by the fact that it’s in such a terrible song, all dramatic strings and clarinet pips. Morrissey will apparently try to rectify Maladjusted’s maladjustment with a reissue that scraps a couple of the weaker tracks in favor of B-sides. But it still includes “Sorrow Will Come In The End,” unfortunately.