Steven Patrick Morrissey has always been a little of an international man of mystery. And whether it is the meaning of his lyrics or hints about his favorite sport, fans seem all the more curious to dig deeper into his music.
The singer -- who has gone solely by his surname since his days with The Smiths -- recently released “The Very Best of Morrissey," an 18-song retrospective with a DVD that includes hits such as “Tomorrow," “The Last of the International Playboys” and “November Spawned a Monster,” along with lesser known gems such as “Boxers."
Restarting his tour on Jan. 9 with U.S. stops in New York, Atlanta, Chicago and elsewhere, Morrissey recently spoke about where he’s at as an artist. His songwriting process, he says, hasn’t really changed thirtysome years into his career, but what weighs in on Morrissey’s mind might be different.
“My concerns have shifted, and the last 30 years read as one dramatic head storm.” Morrissey said. “I've always been a confessional writer, a witness, with an internal switch in the head that doesn't turn off. It's exhilarating, in fact.”
And while the changing world has Morrissey’s creative efforts grinding forward, he nevertheless remains quite the social critic.
“I continue to rally against social injustice and I despise the dumbo generation of reality TV, celebrity noise, showbiz bile and the British royal family,” he said.
Morrissey also stated that he is still active as a staunch animal-rights activist and that, equally, his passion and musical fervor have never wavered. Touring is part of that artistic process.
“Going on tour is a bit like going away to sea," he said. "It’s exciting. But if you ever begin to feel bored you find yourself plagued by a sense of ingratitude.”
Up to the present, Morrissey has spent two decades as a successful solo artist, releasing albums regularly to great acclaim that combine the emotive hooks of his Smiths years with Morrissey’s own Oscar Wilde-like poetic sensibilities.
While every new Morrissey album conjures up its own critique and media buzz -- having released either a new album or compilation almost every year since 1988 -- Morrissey maintains that it’s not fame, nor hype, nor the length of a musician’s career that marks a songwriter’s importance and impact. Rather, the song and its quality is the true test.
“I don’t think it’s possible to fool anyone, because the song is the perfect lie detector," he said. "We can all spot the forgeries who just go through the motions.”
Regarding some fly-by-night pop artists, he said: “They may get the obligatory Grammy, but they're little more than packing material three months down the line.”
And, to sum it up, he said: “Few are willing to give much honesty in their writing, but for me there's no other way. I actually don't object to being thrown off a cliff.”
Besides the headstrong mind, inimitable baritone voice and his contemplative, literary lyrical style, there’s plenty about Morrissey that fans never knew.
“I was, perhaps oddly, very athletic when I was young,” Morrissey said about his days as a lad and accidental young footballer. Evidently, the thrill of sports had an effect on the budding Manchester musician.
“I was forced onto several [football -- meaning soccer] teams and track events and so forth. And the impression,” Morrissey said, “was indelible. The high drama, the stakes, the exhilaration of giving all that was left of you physically. I saw it all with a poet’s eye, though.”
Morrissey’s ability with words may mirror the way Pelé could shred a defense with footwork and a soccer ball, and it is nothing new to observers of musical talent. Likewise, veiled references to the world of sport should come as no surprise either.
His critically acclaimed 1992 album “Your Arsenal” wasn’t, perhaps to the chagrin of Gunners fans, a tome to English football club Arsenal FC. But the follow up-album “Vauxhall and I,” along with its single “Speedway” and later “Boy Racer” on the following album, point to Morrissey’s affinity for motorsports as much as “Southpaw Grammar” referenced life’s metaphors with the sweet science of boxing.
Meanwhile, his puns regarding the game of English football have been as slight and elegant as the game itself. Songs such as The Smith’s “Frankly Mr. Shankly” -- which names the legendary Liverpool coach Bill Shankly -- and the 1997 single, “Roy’s Keen," a play on the name of the Manchester United legend Roy Keene, highlights Morrissey’s soft spot for English football and the game’s own quixotic figures.
Yet such songs have never cleared up rumors suggesting the songster was a lover of Liverpool or Manchester United manic. In 2008, it surfaced that Morrissey was a fan of the south London club Millwall, with the London Telegraph reporting Morrissey to be sporting the club’s jersey around Los Angeles.
“I knew the assistant manager at Millwall for a while. Of course the next thing I read in the British press is that I’ve bought the club,” Morrissey said. “But that was the only connection.”
Still, Morrissey admits having a heart for the beautiful game.
“I keep a lazy eye on football," he said, "but it gets difficult when you're decomposing in a 747 bound for Mendoza, Argentina.
“It’s a bit like trying to exercise without actually getting out of bed. Not easy.”