'Late Night, Maudlin Street' from Viva Hate (1988)
The sense of a secret world, available only to those able to decipher its clues, engenders faith in its faithful just as it engenders doubt in the skeptic. At the time of Viva Hate's release, I counted myself very much one of the faithful. Like its contemporary, Twin Peaks, Viva Hate - Morrissey's first solo album, and his most tricksy, arcane record by far - made the metaphysical world more real than the physical, and for a dreamy, queer, Catholic adolescent, this was an irresistible tactic. Now that almost two decades separate me from that embarrassing kid, it's fitting that my favourite Morrissey song remains one that ostensibly deals with nostalgia. 'Late Night, Maudlin Street', Morrissey's aching seven and a half minute paean to his adolescence in suburban Manchester - "I was born here and I was raised here, and I took some stick here" - begins with the narrator packing up his childhood house alone, haunted by memories of his childhood sweetheart. If this sounds like uncharacteristically saccharine territory, it probably is. Morrissey's habit of constructing his lyrics around a set of allusory Easter eggs is once again in play, casting contradictory and compelling shadows over character, voice and narrative. Familiarity with queer semiotics, 50s and 60s playwrights, the output of Ealing Studios, and above all Morrissey's autobiographical mythos, can complicate even the simplest-seeming of his lyrics.
In fact, 'Late Night, Maudlin Street' is named partly for Bill Naughton's book of acerbic character studies, Late Night, Watling Street, and partly for the school in Carry On Teacher - hardly the gesture of one bent on sincerity. For all its chimerical beauty (due in part to arrangement by Vini Reilly of the Durutti Column, whose glazed guitars are all over this album), for all its appeal to lost love and urban decay, 'Late Night, Maudlin Street' relates the tale of relationship breakup - referring now to the Smiths, now to the separation of Morrissey's parents, now to Naughton's characters, now to the loss of Morrissey's own, never-named sweetheart - in a narrative as fragmentary and impressionistic as Reilly's guitars, as remote and washed-out as Stephen Street's treated drums, yet located always in a place so vividly recollected, it hurts. It's testament to Morrissey's talent as a vocalist that the emotion of the song never wavers; this is one of his finest performances on any record; but it is his unique ability to construct a believably moving narrative out of disparate cultural signifiers that kept me dreaming then, keeps me dreaming now.