Morrissey caps off his triumphant return this decade with a collection of b-sides and out-takes from his last three albums. The eccentric singer is often critised for his numerous compilation albums (which have historically numbered about two to one to his proper studio albums), but on Swords one thing is certain – Morrissey is keeping the b-side alive.
Instant online music distribution tends to discourage compilations like this one. When fans can choose to buy their favourite tracks themselves, why would they pay for everything that comes with Swords? Morrissey’s non-album material has traditionally been impeccable, but Swords is not complete in terms of extra material from the past decade. Nevertheless, taken only as a somehwat arbitrary collection of songs, Swords still excels.
Morrissey’s first solo compilation, 1990′s Bona Drag, was a tightly knit collection that stands stronger than many of his regular albums, and Swords follows in its footsteps. Good Looking Man About Town kicks things off with what sounds like a warning siren over electronic percussion, adding a rumbling bass, a zesty drumbeat, and layers of energetic guitars along the way. Distinct sections lead eventually into a Middle Eastern type of guitar riff while Morrissey croons a familiar-sounding complaint that no one can “soften the stings” to his heart.
The follow-up Don’t Make Fun Of Daddy’s Voice is a powerful offering from the excellent b-sides of the You Are The Quarry singles. In the vein of his single Irish Blood, English Heart, it roars with distorted guitars and a huge chorus. And further down on Swords there’s the severe crunch of It’s Hard To Walk Tall When You’re Small to round out the fastpaced rock tunes here.
Morrissey and his band typically only use a handful of styles and musical tricks, and on Swords they all work rather well. In addition to the rock tunes, awkward ballads like Christian Dior outshine ballads that made it onto proper albums (eg. All The Lazy Dykes), and mid-tempo songs like Munich Air Disaster 1958 overpower past limp offerings like America Is Not The World. In short, some of these b-sides should have been a-sides.
In the space between rock songs and ballads, Morrissey offers some strange material here that would have never made it onto a proper album. Human Being features a dirty guitar solo that sounds like a distorted saxophone and is punctuated by weird sing-a-long chorus of “I’m a human being.” Sweetie-Pie features ghostly vocals over a collection of drones and strangely operatic backup singing. It’s quite something else to critise any Morrissey song as being too strange for his catalogue, but experiments like these recall the otherworldy creativity of the The Queen Is Dead and Your Arsenal, even if none of Swords’ tracks approach the iconic levels of the classic songs.
In addition to the 18 tracks on Swords, a special release of the compilation offers six live cuts from a performance in Warsaw. It’s a welcome addition, on the level of recordings from 2005′s Live At Earls Court, and well the worth the higher pricetag. The band is blistering, the energy is high, and Morrissey is at his most charming. As he continues his reign as the king of mope into his fourth music-making decade, it’s comforting to know that he’s still upholding the tradition of singles and b-sides that really got his career going in the first place.