The challenge for any solo artist to step out of the shadow of their former band is one that even a performer with the outsized personality of Stephen Patrick Morrissey sometimes struggles to overcome. And it’s not that Morrissey didn’t clear that hurdle in a relatively short amount of time. But when you spend five years as the frontman of one of the most celebrated bands of all time, you should expect that specter to continue to haunt you for some time.
In 1992, Morrissey was still plagued by the curse of having to live up to The Smiths’ legacy, which he very nearly accomplished with his 1988 debut Viva Hate. His second album, 1991’s Kill Uncle, put the brakes on that momentum a bit, the album largely missing the acerbic wit and creative spark of most of his prior recordings. If ever the opportunity were presented to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, this was it. And thus, he enlisted a new band, featuring guitarists Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte, whose boisterous and vibrant riffs provided Morrissey with his strongest musical foils since parting ways with Johnny Marr. Add to that a production job by longtime David Bowie sideman Mick Ronson, and what results is Your Arsenal, an album that practically serves as an encyclopedic example of artistic renewal.
More than anything, these are songs that just sound great. The hard-driving riffs of “You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side,” glam-rock swagger of “Glamorous Glue” and “Certain People I Know” are simultaneously distinctive and endlessly listenable, while feeling uniquely Morrissey to the core. And though Boorer and Whyte’s style often stands in stark contrast to that of Marr’s, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Your Arsenal (whose title can be read as “your arse ‘n’ all,” if you want it to be) is the solo Morrissey outing that feels most like a Smiths album. He pushes England away with one hand and pulls it closer on the other throughout, bemoaning “London is dead” on “Glamorous Glue,” while deflecting criticism with self-deprecation on “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”: “If they’re Northern, that makes it even worse” (hint: find Manchester on a map of England). And listening to “I Know It’s Going to Happen Someday,” it’s hard not to hear shades of “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.”
The album — which is very nearly flawless — is given a remaster job on Parlophone’s newly reissued version of the album, which indeed sounds great. But as is the case with any Morrissey or Smiths reissue, it’s hard not to hear the echo of a young Stephen Patrick crooning “reissue, reissue, repackage” in mocking tones, and there’s certainly a bit of peculiar meddling that’s been done to this version of Your Arsenal. The album version of “Tomorrow” has been inexplicably lopped off in favor of the remixed American single version, rather than the latter being added as a bonus track. And the accompanying live DVD, recorded at Shoreline Amphitheatre in 1992, is a good-enough bonus, rather than a must-have live document. These are minor quibbles of course; a whole stack of tacky badges couldn’t stand in the way of Your Arsenal being absolutely essential.