Steven Morrissey has never had the reputation of being a particularly happy man, but the advance reviews of his new album, Low in High School, will doubtless have made him more miserable still.
Five out of ten, pronounced the normally emollient Uncut, having huffed over his support for Anne Marie Waters in the recent UKIP leadership election.
Not to be outdone, Mojo weighed in with three stars out of five beneath a headline granting him “B+ for music but a C- for attitude.” Meanwhile, the Guardian has warned that the great man is in danger of losing his audience.
By this stage in the proceedings the average rock fan will have begun to smell a rat.
It is not that anyone has straightforwardly declared that “because this artist has a raft-load of suspect political beliefs his music no longer has any merit”, merely that beneath the complaints about “unhinged extremity” and “lurid paranoia” lurks a suspicion that that Mozza is essentially being judged by two different sets of values, and an assumption that a man who eschews progressive political attitudes is highly unlikely to record anything to which a right-thinking person would want to listen.
I first became aware of this evaluative sleight-of-hand back in the 1980s when reading reviews of novels by such right-leaning novelists as Kingsley Amis in which it seemed abundantly clear that they were being criticised not for producing poor work but for hanging out with Mrs Thatcher and disliking the trade unions.
The same treatment was handed out to Philip Larkin after the discovery of racist slurs in his posthumously published letters when the Oxford academic Tom Paulin wondered how a poet who wrote (mercifully unpublished) lines about “a rising tide of n****s” and looked forward to a time when the working classes would dine off stewed grass could possibly expect his output to be studied in schools and universities.
“Life is hard enough for those who were born here”
In fact, as anyone might have told Mr Paulin, it is, to a certain extent, the racism and the misogyny that makes Larkin interesting. If we can establish why a man who sorrows over the death of a hedgehog cut to pieces by his lawnmower can routinely disparage so many of his fellow human beings, then we may be getting closer to understanding him.
Exactly the same point can be made of Morrissey, who is able to lecture the “Bengali in platforms” of one of his early songs that “life is hard enough for those who were born here” while simultaneously filing some of the most moving songs about loss and loneliness in the modern pop canon.
In his essay on Salvador Dali, George Orwell suggests that you ought to be able to hold in your head the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being, and that the one does not invalidate the other.
Unlike one or two of the pop commentariat, I do not think that Morrissey is a disgusting human being: I think he shares several of the prejudices that currently disfigure our national life and that the gap between some of his political views and his artistic skills (which even hostile reviews tend to allow) is worth investigating.
Meanwhile, it is worth examining this argument from the other side.
The forthcoming second volume of the novelist David Lodge’s autobiography contains an account of a Booker Prize judging meeting where one of the judges proposed that any book chosen for the shortlist should be “ideologically correct” – a remark quite as fatuous in its way as anything Morrissey has ever said about UKIP.