Bill Morrissey – hurts so good
“I’d never done anything like that before — just wrote a straightforward love song for this woman.”
A rare breed indeed is the artist who could make such a statement. Ask the majority of songwriters what the majority of their songs are about, and undoubtedly they’d acknowledge their debt to the muse of the heartstrings, an 800-pound gorilla roaming the jungle of inspiration.
But Bill Morrissey utters this confession with a tone of bemused surprise in his crackling voice, as if the idea of writing a simple romantic ballad had escaped him over nearly two decades of recording and touring.
We’re discussing “Will You Be My Rose?”, the closing track on Morrissey’s ninth album, Something I Saw Or Thought I Saw (released April 3 on Philo/Rounder). It is, to be certain, unlike any song the literary-minded New Englander has ever released. Set to a beautiful piano melody accented only with violin and bass — void of Morrissey’s trademark foundation of folk-blues guitar — it is unabashedly direct in its sentiment:
Will you be my rose
In the morning true
When the nighttime fails
And the world begins anew?
Just as “Will You Be My Rose?” stylistically stands apart among Morrissey’s body of work, it also serves as a sort of antidote to Something I Saw Or Thought I Saw, which is primarily a dark rumination on the dissolution of a relationship. “It’s another divorce album,” Morrissey forthrightly admits — the qualifying word “another” beckoning a recollection of his pivotal albums Standing Eight (1989) and Inside (1992), which carried scattered shards from the breakup of his first marriage.
Which isn’t to say the new album is explicitly autobiographical, nor that either of those earlier two records were. Mostly, Morrissey is a storyteller, drawing upon his own experiences and emotions to create fictional characters who breathe life into his songs. In the case of Something I Saw, “I think the characters in the songs have been around the block a bit,” he says. “It’s more of a seasoned outlook into some of the twists life can send you.
“Sometimes things get outta hand; you know, you’re not in control of your relationships and all that,” he continues, suggesting that Something I Saw focuses on “how you deal with it. And how you kind of step back and get a little perspective on it.”
That perspective includes observations such as, “If you look closely down to the side/You can see yourself as a ghost,” on the deceptively gentle opening track, “23rd Street”. In the wistfully nostalgic “Fix Your Hair The Way You Used To”, the narrator claims, “I’m not pleading or complaining/I’m just wondering if you’re leaving friend or foe.” The crux of the matter is revealed most plainly on “Moving Day”, with its resigned acquiescence: “Love cannot take sides/Or take a stand or answer why/Sometimes two hearts must fall apart/No matter how they try.”
Not all the songs on Something I Saw are so specific to the record’s overall theme, however. “Harry’s Last Call”, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”, “Traveling By Cab” and “Mobile” exemplify the fictional short-story aesthetic that has been an integral element of Morrissey’s music from the outset. (Indeed, he’s also written a novel — Edson, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1996 — that he half-jokingly describes as “an extremely long short story.”)
Regardless of whether the songs are fact or fiction, one constant motivation guides Morrissey in his writing. “The kind of music I like is the kind of music that kind of grabs me by the lapels,” he explains. “Somebody’s saying, ‘Look, I gotta tell you something.’ And that’s kind of the approach I shoot for. I’m not always successful, but I want to have something to say.”
That, more than anything, is what Morrissey does better than any of the generation of singer-songwriters who rose from the latter-day folkie boom which germinated in the Northeast during the 1980s. Most prominent among its players was Suzanne Vega, who hit MTV in 1985 with “Marlene On The Wall” and #2 on the pop charts in ’87 with “Luka”. Shawn Colvin earned a Grammy for her 1989 debut “Steady On” and reached platinum status in the ’90s. (Both Vega and Colvin contributed backing vocals to Morrissey’s early albums.) And though she didn’t really travel in the same circles, there was fellow Bostonian Tracy Chapman, whose “Fast Car” cruised out of nowhere to become a smash hit in 1988.
There was also John Gorka, from Pennsylvania; Cliff Eberhardt, whose name surfaced a couple of times during our interview; Ellis Paul, who Morrissey has produced in the studio; Lucy Kaplansky, who recorded Morrissey’s “Texas Blues” on her first album; and Michael Fracasso, who became known in the ’90s after moving to Austin.