Beginning with the assumption that Morrissey will never again make a record as moving, affecting, or enduring as The Smiths' 1986 classic The Queen Is Dead—or even his own solo debut, 1988's Viva Hate—isn't a bad idea when considering his first 21st-century album, You Are The Quarry. Holding Morrissey's current output up to his old group's standards isn't especially fair at this point: No, it's not as good as The Smiths, but for fans of the band, what is, or ever will be?
Certainly not Morrissey's seventh solo album, though You Are The Quarry is a massive improvement over its predecessor, 1997's dire, misguided Maladjusted. What the two have in common, though, is an increasing solipsism that often dispenses with Morrissey's most valuable asset—his ability to expand pointed insights and clever turns of phrase into universally applicable emotional balm. There's no "I" in "fan base," but those I's are all over this album. Even on "You Know I Couldn't Last," the "you" is at least partially Morrissey lamenting the business of fading pop stardom ("Don't let the good days of the gold discs creep up and mug you"). Fully half of the album's 12 tracks actually have "I" or "Me" in the title: Morrissey must have struggled not to name it I Am The Quarry. He even asks "How Could Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel?" in a song about people's interactions with, yes, Morrissey.
Only when Morrissey's wickedly funny side emerges does Quarry find moments worthy of sharing shelf space with his finest. The album-opener "America Is Not The World" examines his love-hate relationship with the U.S., both ham-handedly ("America, you know where / you can shove your hamburger") and more pointedly ("Don't you wonder why in Estonia they say / 'Hey you, you big fat pig'"). Even better are "I Have Forgiven Jesus" (wherein Morrissey asks, half-seriously, "Jesus, do you hate me?") and the maudlin, string-swept "Come Back To Camden," which paints with more satisfyingly broad emotional strokes.
Quarry's music—co-written and performed by his longtime guitarists and produced by pop-punk expert Jerry Finn—takes the usual back seat to Morrissey's words, though it does a serviceable job of toughening up all the right spots. It adds to the overall feeling that You Are The Quarry, while not the hoped-for infallible return, at least finds an undeniably talented lyricist and important pop figure up on his feet again. He may never make another The Queen Is Dead, but a half-good, occasionally great Morrissey record is better than none at all.