Morrissey outwitted everyone as the Dorothy Parker of pop under the auspices of the Smiths in the 1980s. When they broke up in 1987, Morrissey’s fans eagerly awaited his first foray into solo territory. 1988’s Viva Hate was a continuation of the Smith’s pristine legacy, both lyrically and musically. Stephen Street, former Smiths producer, set to composing the music, and with a roster of talented session musicians, including the Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly, Morrissey made a seamless transition from frontman to solo artist. Its follow-up, a safe compilation of new songs and previously released singles, was only a half-step away from his debut, which merely made fans salivate for an album of all new material. 1991’s Kill Uncle was born from that promise. Morrissey’s second studio album is frequently cited as his fans’ least favorite. In an issue of Select Magazine, Suede’s Brett Anderson disappointedly described it as ‘dross’ in comparing it with Your Arsenal. Even Morrissey reassessed his album years later as ‘substandard,’ with it being a ‘very bad time for me personally’ as justification. But is it really Morrissey’s worst effort? The 2013 remastered Kill Uncle is as good a time as any to reconsider its value to Morrissey’s body of work.
Part of the problem lies with Morrissey’s choice of collaborators. Producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley are known for their work with Madness, those nutty guys who are polar opposites of Morrissey. The duo were unable to provide the sort of substantial production required for a Morrissey record. Worse was Morrissey’s partnership with Mark E. Nevin of Fairground Attraction. Any legitimate criticisms lodged at this album rest squarely on Nevin’s shoulders since most songs were co-written with him. Lucky for us, Kill Uncle marked their first and last collaboration. Nevin’s compositions seemed dated before the album was even released. The music is detached, and, perhaps, as a result, Morrissey’s lyrical content seems to be more flimsy and impassive. Despite its missteps, it is not a bad album and does not deserve all the negativity it’s received. Really, it’s no worse than much of Maladjusted or Southpaw Grammar. The reason why this album is so maligned is because it was the first proof that Morrissey isn’t infallible, that he doesn’t truly have the Midas touch. Previously, everything he touched turned to pure sonic gold, and it didn’t seem possible that every thing he did would not be perfection. Kill Uncle may have been the great disappointment that shattered many dreams of a perfect pop world, but there is some fleeting beauty in its imperfections.
What Morrissey lost in the murk of Nevin’s late 80s-styled musical mediocrity, he made up for with his lyrical wit and theatricality. Here Morrissey’s singing reaches a new level of magnificent ostentation, greater than anything recorded previously. While his stylized torch songs were an unusual departure at the time of the album’s release, his fans have been treated to many more of these performances, which include some of his most stunning songs. But, ultimately, what Morrissey brought to the album could not salvage it from its isolation. More than anything, Kill Uncle is a fragmented collection of what should have been studio outtakes or middling b-sides.
Despite being a prime example of the difficult second album, there are a few tracks that make it worthwhile. The album opens with ‘Our Frank.’ This song is reminiscent of Viva Hate’s opener, ‘Alsatian Cousin.’ It’s the singer’s self-deprecating inner monologue ending with an emphatic plea for peace from his own overactive obsessive mind. Essentially, it’s a mental breakdown soundtracked by brilliantly overdone overdubbed vocal effects and multi-layered music. ‘Asian Rut’ has been ludicrous fodder for ‘Morrissey as racist’ claims rampant in the early 1990s. The song is really a somber tale of the murder of an Asian committed by three English boys. Sure, it explores English racism, but that does not mean the author advocates such horrors. If some have deemed ‘Asian Rut’ one of the less tasteful Morrissey songs, others might be more disgusted by the pun-heavy ‘King Leer.’ It’s a silly ditty that is made all the more perfect by its arch cheesiness. It’s a clumsy but cute attempt at courtship, and its jaunty piano melody makes this the most Smiths-like song on the album. Oh, Morrissey, you had me at ‘Tizer.’ Surprisingly, Kill Uncle fared much better in the US singles charts. Both ‘Our Frank’ and ‘Sing Your Life’ hit the top ten in the US modern rock charts. ‘Sing Your Life’ is one of the strongest songs on the record. Morrissey’s crooning exudes a confidence that resonates with fans that cherish his songs of empowerment and rising above insecurities. The closing track, ‘There Is A Place In Hell For Me And My Friends’ is the album’s peak. The original version evokes a plaintive existential longing carried onwards by a simple piano. Its power is in its subtlety.
Now, twenty-two years after the original release of Kill Uncle, it has finally been remastered. The reissue released this year has improved cover art, insignificantly shuffled tracks, and two additional songs. Those two songs are the lovable ‘Pashernate Love’ (formerly found on the rarities collection, My Early Burglary Years) and a cover of the Herman’s Hermits’ ‘East West.’ The original piano version of ‘There Is A Place In Hell For Me And My Friends’ has been swapped with a harder rock version recorded at the Los Angeles radio station, KROQ, and subsequently released on his Morrissey at KROQ EP. Its muscular rockabilly swagger hints at the direction of Morrissey’s following album, Your Arsenal. The tender resignation of the prior studio version gives way to a renewed punkish defiance. Both versions have their merit. Couldn’t both have been included?
Even with its meatier reissue, Kill Uncle is still a puzzling album. It exposes an awkward transitional point between Morrissey’s Smiths past and his rockabilly future. While the album lacks a cohesive vision, in retrospect, it is less featherweight than its reputation would suggest. Its highs glint like flawed diamonds with a new light shining on it after all these years.