Kill UncleKill Uncle is one of the more challenging releases in Morrissey’s catalogue. Following the demise of the Smiths, Morrissey had great success continuing to work with producer Stephen Street, in particular producing two timeless singles, Suedehead and Every Day is Like Sunday. Later in his career, he has settled comfortably working with guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer who have penned the bulk of his material since 1992. Kill Uncle, however, is an idiosyncratic, transitional album that spans the gap – along with a handful of singles – between these two fruitful periods. Messy, poorly produced and lacking in a standout song, it was rightly slammed by critics at the time. A recent remaster overseen by Moz himself, however, begs the question, is Kill Uncle worth revisiting? Write-ups in the New Yorker and Pitchfork indicate yes. Me, however, I’m not so sure.

The central problem with Kill Uncle is that it has no idea what it’s supposed to be. On paper, it should work. The album is produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, known for their work with Madness, Elvis Costello and Dexy’s Midnight Runner. Morrissey first turned to them to produce the Street-penned Ouija Board, Ouija Board, an atmospheric number with an absolutely beautiful b-side, Yes, I Am Blind. They also produced the two following singles, November, Spawned a Monster and Piccadilly Palare, carrying on Street’s shimmering pop sound, while adding some appreciated rock muscle. On the production side, then, all bodes well.

The new factor added in the mix is songwriter Mark Nevin, off a hot single, Perfect, with his band Fairground Attraction. Morrissey’s love for Memphis rockabilly was the catalyst that first linked him with Johnny Marr, so you can imagine why he’d want to collaborate with Nevin. Perfect draws together all those wonderful rockabilly elements – a snare-and-brushes shuffle, catchy harmonies, and a reverb and vibrato-laden solo played on an old Gretsch hollowbody. It even finishes on a major sixth chord! Could Nevin, then, be Morrissey’s new Marr?

A glance at the lyric sheet also finds Morrissey in fine form. So many tales of longing and unrequited love. Take Found, Found, Found:

“I do believe that/The more you give your love…/The more you give your trust…/The more you’re bound to lose.”

Or The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye:

“I don’t wanna be judged/I would sooner be Loved/I would sooner be/Just blindly Loved …”

More than once, Morrissey clumsily, and even creepily, fawns over another’s lover (King Leer and Driving Your Girlfriend Home). There are dark tales of the decline of English society – racist violence in Asian Rut, and an uncomfortable testimony from a mute witness in, well, Mute Witness. Morrissey struggles with his outlook on opener Our Frank:

“Somebody stop me/From thinking/From thinking all the time/So bleakly, so bleakly/So bleakly all the time.”

By the end, though, he has come terms with who he is. For Morrissey, his life is about self-expression, having the courage to

“Walk right up to the microphone/And name/All the things you love/All the things that you loathe.”

If that leads to damnation, he’s content with that, because all of his friends will be there anyways (There Is a Place in Hell For Me and My Friends).

Somewhere along the way, though, this album went seriously amiss. The charm of Nevin’s songwriting disappeared, and the crispness of Langer and Winstanley’s sound was muddied and lost, resulting in a schizophrenic mess. On the one hand, you’ve got two songs – Mute Witness and Found, Found, Found – penned by Langer, neither of which would have been out of place on the November, Spawned a Monster single. The first is a driving pop song given edge through plenty of guitar feedback, the second a sleazy dirge, akin to Kiss Me-era Cure rockers.

Langer’s tunes, though, are largely out of place next to Nevin’s new style. The bigger problem, though, is that it’s simply too hard to pin down Nevin’s style. Opening track, Our Frank, is the most akin to Langer, but before long he’s alternating between rockabilly romps – Sing Your Life and King Leer – and the avant-grade pop of Asian Rut and The Harsh Truth. Indeed these latter songs, employing carousing violin leads and carnival-esque pianos draw more on a Birthday Party or Tom Waits influence than the hillbilly sounds of Memphis.

By the time we get into the second side, we’re faced with three tunes in a row, all with a lilting 6/8 time signature. All are interesting in their own right and Smiths fans will appreciate the chiming, echoing guitars found on all of them, but played back to back, they simply drag on and on. The closing piano ballad, There is a Place, is epic in its simplicity, and yet the listener is too worn out by this point to care. I have much the same experience with the Smiths’ final release, as well.

Kill Uncle ReissueIn the recent 2013 reissue, Morrissey has applied his revisionist approach to yet another album, with little success. The revised track listing reflects some understanding of the album’s weaknesses. Originally the second track, Asian Rut sapped the energy built by Our Frank of any momentum. Here it’s bumped into the middle of the set. Likewise, the four slower tracks at the end are now broken up. There is a Place is replaced with a more upbeat guitar-led version from KROQ, and End of the Family Line is shifted to the closing spot. With its false ending, it is effective as the last word.

That said, the new track listing still doesn’t work. The shift from Our Frank’s pop-rock to Sing Your Life’s quirky rockabilly is too abrupt. In the middle, too, we’re given two added b-sides, neither of which contribute to a unified sonic vision. Pashernate Love, taken from 1992’s You’re the One for Me, Fatty, sounds like what it is, an outtake from the more aggressive Your Arsenal. Its theme of rejecting love fits the album, but the music is from a different era (and producer). Likewise, the Herman’s Hermits cover East West is taken from 1989, and sounds like the glossy pop of its day. As a reflection on celebrity, its theme fits alongside Sing Your Life, but the sound is from another era. Elsewhere, the alternate version of There is a Place adds an upbeat spark, but ignores the fact that the original version is the better of the two.

Why, then, didn’t Morrissey turn to Kill Uncle’s own b-sides to give a more balanced approach to the album? The Loop and Pregnant for the Last Time would have added to the rockabilly sound and would have been well-complemented by the acoustic Skin Storm or That’s Entertainment. My Love Life is the jangliest thing Morrissey has released apart from Marr, and could have been the standout single. Swapping these in for Langer’s tunes and the more avant-garde tracks would have given a far more unified sound. Of course, he’s also left I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty on the cutting floor as well, perhaps Morrissey’s most powerful torch song ever. My recommendation for a re-imagining of Kill Uncle would be: A – Our Frank/My Love Life/Sing Your Life/Skin Storm/The Loop/I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty B – Pregnant for the Last Time/King Leer/Driving Your Girlfriend Home/Mute Witness/There is a Place…/(I’m) The End of the Family Line. In fact, as I listen to this line-up in iTunes, it just might rank a 4 or even 5/5!

Ultimately, though, no re-tracking can really save Kill Uncle and it is better accepted for what it is: a flawed, transitional album that simply didn’t work. It would have been better as a deluxe release with the original album followed by the singles and b-sides of the day as bonus tracks, all of which would fit on one disc!

Thankfully, Morrissey redeemed himself on the follow-up Your Arsenal. Producer Mick Ronson got the production right, perfectly balancing aggressive guitars with rockabilly influences, and allowing the right space for a couple of glorious torch songs. Ironically, where Langer and Winstanley couldn’t find room for I’ve Changed my Plea, Ronson turned a similar Levin leftover, I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday, into an absolute showstopper on Your Arsenal.

In the end, I think the problem with Kill Uncle is everyone’s fault. As a vocalist and lyricist, Morrissey depends on co-writers and producers to realize his vision, and he’s had some marvelous collaborations across his career. This includes great singles produced by Langer and Winstanley, and some memorable tunes written by Nevin. When the four came together it simply didn’t work. I can’t imagine the pressure on a green songwriter like Nevin (Fairground Attraction had just released their second album in 1990) being asked to work with the vaunted Morrissey! His tunes are ambitious, but often awkward. As producers, Langer and Winstanley should have reined in the experimentation and helped this new songwriting duo find their esssence. Unfortunately, L&W seem most comfortable replicating the pop sounds Moz created with Street, and simply weren’t up to the task of helping Morrissey find his new sound.

For Morrissey fans, Kill Uncle remains interesting, but any hopes of resurrecting the album that could have been are futile. It is what it is and always shall be… a failed experiment.

2/5

Comments
  1. Jon says:

    Moz could have taken his popularity to another level with a better release, coming off of the Bona Drag momentum. Then grunge slammed the door on the wider audience. It was a weak US tour, too. He should have relented and played one Smiths tune per night.

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