Considering the awesome Smiths reviews that have been popping up on this site, I thought I'd post a piece on one of Morrissey's best solo albums (or hell, his best). After the disappointing sophomore solo effort Kill Uncle, Moz enlisted Bowie/Dylan guitarist Mick Ronson to produce his third album, a hit in England and a modest one in the States. Your Arsenal is one of his ultimate statements, an album superbly unified in sound and significantly harder and "rocking" than Morrissey's first solo efforts.
Both Viva Hate and Kill Uncle had more of a morose, experimental sound (which for me could be interesting/awful). In contrast, Your Arsenal is an album infused with modern rock, with Morrissey regaining the swagger of "Sheila Take A Bow" and "Panic," even as Ronson and rockabilly guitarist Boz Boorer add an even stronger glam and rockabilly sound. The guitars here have the edge of Ronson's playing on Ziggy Stardust: glittering and perfect, but also sexual, a little rough jagged edge. This gives openers "You're Gonna Need Someone On Your Side" and "Glamorous Glue" a threatening feeling and a darkness that works with Morrissey's lyrics of stalker glee and English decay respectively: "We look to Los Angeles for the language we use / London is dead." This was the last album Ronson produced before dying of liver cancer, a tragedy considering Ronson's brilliance as an arranger, producer and guitarist.
As with much of Morrissey's discography, the Manchester native muses, bitches and pleads about the death of England as a nation, how much he loves and hates his friends and his desperate need for love and rejection of it because, well, he doesn't deserve it, and who would love him anyway. For the Morrissey fan, this is sort of comforting, like an old friend who might talk about the same things every time, but whose familiarity is something you can rely on. His songs are by turns biting and devastating. "Certain People I Know" is a straight rockabilly number with lyrics that exalt people who "break their necks / And can't afford to get them fixed," even while neatly walking over the bodies. The torch song "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday," a musical homage to "Rock n' Roll Suicide," features one of his greatest vocal performances, a cry of hope in the face of extreme despair. I'm surprised it hasn't become a cabaret standard.
Other songs have earned controversy. "The National Front Disco," maybe because of its ambiguous lyrics and charging, optimistic guitar, has attracted criticism of supporting the National Front and neo-nazism (this has also occurred because of Morrissey's general weird remarks--personally, I don't think he's a racist, it's just that he's kind of a tactless asshole). It's a song that's criticism is unwarranted: "The National Front Disco" is a direct attempt not to judge white supremacy movements, but to examine the motivations that go into young kids joining them and what that movement represents for them. Morrissey's approach is certainly more interesting than a sloganeering condemnation; instead, it's a skeptical study of youthful enthusiasm in the service of immoral ideas.
For those who hate Morrissey, this album will do nothing to change them. They'll continue to grumble, listen to Massive Attack or something, and not understand the rest of us; for those of us who can recite "There is a Light," Your Arsenal is highly recommended, his best solo work along with Bona Drag. On the last track, "Tomorrow," Morrissey begs us, "Tell me that you'd love me." No need to ask.