This article originally ran in 2014 and has been updated.
There is nothing subtle about the gaudy exhibitionist Morrissey. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with a standard compilation of his inspiring career either, one that spans more than a quarter of a century and demands a good few Moz-heads working tirelessly to create a “best of” list.
However, a blindly-led throng of solo hits or big-tune A-side bangers is never going to give you the whole story. We’ve sweated, cried, and fought over a collection that will shine a light on 10 songs that aren’t always as their master would prefer them to be — in the spotlight.
hese are the songs that form a strong case for his continued existence, and ours.
10. “One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell”
Years of Refusal (2009)
In 2009, Morrissey gave us all some life lessons he had picked up over his 50 Years of Refusal. In the second half of the album, he tears through “One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell,” a cautionary tale about living with the constant, impending threat of death. But rather than cowering in fear, Moz takes it as an opportunity to put some fear into the hearts of his critics before he dies and goes to hell. (His words, not mine!) With his flair for the dramatic, it’s only appropriate that the song ends with mariachi horns and the plea, “One day goodbye will be farewell/ So grab me while we still have the time!”
While it doesn’t really have a chorus or refrain (unless you count the “Shut up” vocals during the bridge), it’s a barnstormer that comes and goes in less than three minutes, begging for repeat listens.
Key Lyrics: “Look at me, a savage beast!/ I’ve got nothing to sell/ And when I die, I want to go to hell/ And that’s when goodbye should be farewell.”
— Bryn Rich
09. “Irish Blood, English Heart”
You Are The Quarry (2004)
Morrissey’s first single in seven years, the politically engaged “Irish Blood, English Heart,” was a roaring return. With its soft (albeit electric) guitar picking, it seems to ease itself out of the hiatus; however, when the chorus hits, it charges ahead, foreshadowing the bullshit detection of the final verse. In addition to invoking England’s center-left Labour Party and center-right Tory Party, Moz disses one of England’s most enduring 17th century leaders: “I’ve been dreaming of a time when the English … spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell.” Times like this are when his complaining is most appreciable.
Key Lyrics: “There is no one on earth I’m afraid of/ And no regime can buy or sell me”
— Mike Madden
08. “Mute Witness”
Kill Uncle (1992)
We witness that pounding glam piano again folding into rippling buildups and breakdowns within a matter of seconds, giving off an immediate sense of reclamation, which makes it tempting to read this as Morrissey finally letting the sound speak louder than the words. Sometimes all Moz really needs is room to breathe, and with only a piano pushing its rhythms along, the song’s self-conceit, like so many others, feels brutal but simple.
We can’t possibly be sure as to why it’s one of his least celebrated tracks, but “Mute Witness” and its unusual lyrical sidestep is by virtue deserving — it carries the perfect amount of vulnerability and significant power.
Key Lyrics: “She is only trying to tell you/ What it was that she saw.”
— Lior Phillips
07. “I Know Very Well How I Got My Name”
“Suedehead” single (1988)
One of Morrissey’s shortest songs, “I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” is also one of his most powerful. In under two minutes, it somehow manages to perfectly sum up the things you lose when going from “a child in a curious phase” to “a man with sullen ways.” The horror of a dye job gone bad, the end of your first (and only) love…After reaching a certain age, those fleeting, intense feelings become a thing of the past.
It is worth noting that there is a lighthearted side to the song. The “boy who dyed his hair gold” in the second verse was actually a young Steven Patrick Morrissey, who unsuccessfully tried bleaching his hair to look like Ziggy Stardust. Needless to say, the results were about as successful as his botched tour with Bowie in the mid-’90s.
Key Lyrics: “You think you were my first love, but you’re wrong/ You were the only one/ Who has come and gone.”
06. “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get”
Vauxhall and I (1994)
Oh, humans are silly creatures, aren’t they? But Morrissey softens the blow by performing his cautionary tale of a beleaguered lover whose advances are snubbed, which only proves to increase his desire. Sound familiar? Rejection is attraction — we hear you! There’s a sadness here, but it glows and cleaves every emotion of his right down to the bone.
The lyrics wrap around the ear as a tongue would to a lover, and when his honest proclamation of “Beware I hold more grudges/ Than lonely high court judges” unravels into a tender and eerie lament about creeping into thoughts and becoming part of his lover’s being. The final impact of these sentiments comes clearly and cleanly. The production typifies the overtly blissful vocal performance, making this track a masterful gem.
Key Lyrics: “When you sleep/ I will creep/ Into your thoughts/ Like a bad debt/ That you can’t pay/ Take the easy way/ And give in/ Yeah, and let me in/ It’s war.”
Viva Hate (1988)
And just like that, Morrissey’s first solo single, “Suedehead,” became his most successful song to date with or without The Smiths (the band’s biggest hits: “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Sheila Take a Bow”). Though it was penned alongside Stephen Street, it proved that at least Moz didn’t need no stinkin’ Johnny Marr to craft hooks like these. Both the guitar and the vocal melodies are foolproof, but of course, no one else could sing it like this. That almighty voice, which just skies here, is enough to make the words “I’m so sorry” sound like a revelation in the history of pop lyrics. Though “Suedehead” is as jangly as any number of Smiths songs, it was just Morrissey enough to mark the clear start of a new era.
Key Lyrics: “I’m so very sickened.”
— Michael Madden
04. “Sister, I’m a Poet”
“Everyday Is Like Sunday” single (1988)
While Morrissey has written about a lot of interesting characters during his solo career (nationalists, boxers, serial killers), none of them proved to be quite as interesting as himself. On “Sister, I’m a Poet,” Mozzer bounces through his Smithsiest solo track, poking fun at his bookish nature (“With no reason to talk about the books I read, but still I do”) and strange fascination with gang culture (“I love the romance of crime”), while reflecting on the rough-and-tumble, blue-collar city he came from. The whole thing would almost seem vain if the lyrics weren’t so damn clever.
A longtime fan favorite, “Sister, I’m a Poet” was a regular in Morrissey’s setlists for years, even being re-imagined as a rockabilly tune during the Kill Uncle era.
Key Lyrics: “And I wonder, does anybody feel the same way I do?/ And is evil just something you are, or something you do?”
03. “First of the Gang to Die”
You Are The Quarry (2004)
The presence of death in a Morrissey song doesn’t mean the music will sound morbid. “First of the Gang to Die,” then, is a driving-but-wispy tune in spite of its imagery: “Hector was the first of the gang with a gun in his hand and a bullet in his gullet.” For 2004’s comeback album You Are the Quarry, he made an unlikely decision in enlisting producer Jerry Finn — long known as a benefactor for youthful pop punk bands like Blink-182 and Alkaline Trio.
Coming after “Irish Blood, English Heart,” “First of the Gang to Die” was the first set of back-to-back top 10 songs Morrissey had recorded since “Interesting Drug” followed “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” in 1989. “He stole all hearts away,” he sings of the title outlaw. Having gone seven silent years after moving to Los Angeles post-Maladjusted, Moz was the one ready to swoon his audience all over again.
Key Lyrics: “And he stole from the rich and the poor/ And the not very rich and the very poor/ And he stole all hearts away.”
Vauxhall and I (1994)
The glam stamp of Your Arsenal and its slightly gauche lyrics won Morrissey a new audience, though the opening lines of “Speedway” (“And when you slam down the hammer/ Can you see it in your heart?”) swept us right back into the Smiths’ original uniform. It captures Morrissey nailing himself to the proverbial cross of self-martyrdom, instead of slipping into his usual comfort of habitual denial.
This refreshing confessional feels marginally biblical. His frankness is jarring as he tears out his tortured soul and offers it up to the listener. “Speedway” is his essential redemption song.
Key Lyrics: “I’ve always been true to you/ In my own strange way/ I’ve always been true to you/ In my own sick way/ I’ll always stay true to you.”
01. “Now My Heart Is Full”
Vauxhall and I (1994)
With “Now My Heart is Full,” Morrissey took his reputation, ripped it to shreds, and threw the pieces in the air like confetti. Then in his mid-30s, he had established himself as a solo artist and finally made it clear to the world that he was no longer the shy, wilting flower that fronted The Smiths. A natural opener for what is arguably his most introspective album, it may be a rare instance of a tune that means even more to Moz himself than the fans. When asked about the song’s joyous, almost triumphant tone, he remarked, “I have realized that the past is actually over, and it is a great relief to me.”
“Now My Heart is Full” is a man taking a victory lap after reaching a point in his life where he is finally comfortable with himself and the world he lives in, and that deserves a standing ovation.
Key Lyrics: “I’m tired again/ I tried again/ And now my heart is full/ And I can’t explain, so I won’t even try to…”